My hardest days at work aren’t the days when my students are loud or disobedient or unkind to each other. Those days are hard, don’t get me wrong, but they aren’t the hardest. We have procedures and consequences in place for those things, we learn from them and then we move on. Those are the days you expect in elementary school.
No, my hardest days are often parent-teacher conferences, or days looking through students’ files, or days when a student walks in with a too-big bruise and a too-perfect story.
The hardest days are the days when I learn of my students’ suffering.
I teach little ones, five to ten years old, who have lived unimaginably hard lives. They have lived through war and murder and incarceration and poverty, and somehow they’ve managed to make their way right into the middle of the United States and through the door of my ESL class at a public school that is doing everything it can to keep up with the impossible demands of the state and the students.
I love teaching, and I love my students. I love seeing them grow in the safety and comfort and stability they can finally find at our school, in my classroom. But they often cannot escape the evil that haunts their memories and sometimes still visits them in their homes. I spend my days trying to love children in the middle of real and present suffering that I cannot imagine (or solve).
They are too small to shoulder this load on their own. I am too small to carry it for all of them.
I am convinced that the most heartbreaking experience in this life is to see a child suffer and not be able to stop it. But I do not know how to enter into their grief without allowing myself to be consumed by it.
At first, it did consume me. The first child whose story I knew I fought for with all of the time and energy I could spare. And yet, after months of phone calls and conferences and sleepless nights, her circumstances have not changed, and it is unlikely that they will. Every morning that she walks into my class reminds me that the world is broken and it is our fault.
Then, for a while, I gave up. I did the necessary aspects of the job, but I removed my heart from it. I listened to my students, reaffirmed my belief that the world is broken and humanity broke it, and went home. I would not allow my heart to break for these little ones anymore, which meant that I did not allow myself to love them anymore.
But I couldn’t do it. You try sitting in a room full of children who raise their hand to say, “Miss H? You are beautiful,” and not falling in love every single day.
You try talking to a child for five minutes and sticking to your belief that the world is broken beyond repair.
I know the world is broken. I know it’s our fault.
I cannot believe that that is the end of the story.
My only hope in all of this mess is that it is being redeemed by someone more powerful than I. I cannot carry the suffering of these children, but I have to believe there is someone who can. I have to believe that from the broken pieces of their lives can emerge something better than I can presently imagine.
I do not know how to enter their grief without being consumed by it. So, right now, I am sitting in it with them with open hands, crying out to the one who promises that nothing is wasted, that he is making everything new.
And I find that even as their suffering brings me to the brink of despair, they are not themselves despairing. They are stepping into the light of hope and future. They believe they will learn to read, will graduate high school, will live and love. They do not know that children should not have lives like theirs.
Last week, the little girl who I had fought so hard for came into my class and in the middle of her morning work raised her hand. I went over to help her and she said, “Miss H? One thing.”
“What is it?”
“I love you.”
I cannot carry their suffering, unless I also carry their hope.