Four Times I’ve Cried About My Classroom.
I’ve cried about work exactly four times.
A couple of years back, after I found her in the lobby, barefoot, pajamas torn, after I arranged my coverage and wrapped her in a blanket from our daycare and noted how expertly the thumbprints were tattooed on her windpipe, after I guided her breathing and dissected her story, after we spoke to the cops and I counted the bruises on her butt and I watched her climb into the back of the car, after I called ACS, wrote the reports, everything was done, I called my boss. She apologized. I told her it’s all good.
“It’s the job,” I said, nearly laughing.
“No, it isn’t.”
I hung up and cried at my desk, quiet and alone, 12 hours into my shift.
A few months later, after Fall caved to Winter, after I realized she was unconscious and tugged her little body out of the toddler seat, after I checked her pulse and felt the flicker of her breath on my cheek, after the first aid and her screaming mother, after the EMT told me I did good, I cried outside of the shelter while the head of security rubbed my arms and told me how lucky she was to be in my class.
“Me voy, Martinez,” I whispered. She nodded. I turned, eyes dilated, tears still drifting down my cheeks, and walked from Harlem to Grand Central. I left my purse in my classroom. I’d be back in less than 10 hours.
Two months ago I realized my little one — my chair thrower, my bear hugger, my compañero — was gone, really gone, his plane has probably landed, and he’d be in public school before the end of the week. I cried as the Uptown 4 train pulled into Yankee Stadium, stadium lights far too harsh against the sunset.
I cry in therapy all the time. I’ve cried over those damn Dodo pet rescue videos at least once a week since I discovered their Facebook page. But I don’t often cry over work. Never have. I started working with recently-arrived immigrants and homeless high schoolers when I was 21 years old, still technically young enough to be a New York City high schooler. I’m going on year six as an educator. All six were dedicated to mobility and homelessness. Six years of teaching in schools, family shelters, and immigration shelters, and I’ve cried four nights.
My therapist doesn’t normally tell me things outright. Normally he asks questions and waits while I stare vaguely at the trashcan and stitch some barely-coherent answers from the scraps of my languages. But last week he outright told me I have an high capacity for compassion and an extraordinarily high threshold for pain. I wish the former were more important than the latter, but they’re probably split from the same zygote. My own experiences with pain have made me more compassionate and, as I’ve developed a niche in literacy education for children in crisis, compassion is often painful. Rarely a sharp pain — more of a constant ache in my thighs, or a soreness of a bad knee in the hours before a storm, or the discomfort of dry eyes on a sleepless night.
I work exclusively with children living with trauma; the heart of my teaching practice is pain management. Prior to this year I was “only” responsible for managing my pain and the pain of my 200 students. Now that I’ve transitioned to alternative educational leadership, I’m responsible for managing the pain of about 600 kids and 70 educators.
I associate professional educational texts with lists of best practices crafted by polished educators through expert research conducted in classrooms full of children who laugh easily. In my Professional Educational Text™, I’d write a tidy intro, something that made you chuckle into your third cup of coffee. Then I’d number my techniques for Managing Student Pain, Staff Pain, My Pain, each with a catchy nickname. There would be graphics. Maybe my kids would draw them. My author’s head shot would be pretty but professional, my hair falling neatly on my shoulders, my smile bright and unforced. There would still be bags under my eyes, obviously, because I am a Real Teacher, but they will not be the first thing you notice. The Dulce-Marie in that head shot would let you call her Marie if you wanted to, and would cry like an emotionally healthy adult processing a high-stakes setting: regularly, with the appropriate amount of enthusiasm and vigor.
In reality, I have bruises on my knuckles the color of the bags under my eyes, and I’m trying to recover to my natural curls after a couple of decades of Dominican Hair Salons. I don’t like posing in pictures (I prefer the classic fake-candid, maybe a hand or book or poof of hair blocking my face). I walk into work unsure if I’ll get hit, hugged, or both. There is very little neatness in my life. And, although pain management is the core muscle of my work, I’ve never articulated those practices before. I know how to do what I do. I’ve done it for nearly seven years now and I get a bit better at it every day. I don’t know how to discuss what I do. In seven years as a professional educator it has never come up in conversation. We talk, instead, about challenging behaviors or classroom management or teacher burnout. We rarely acknowledge how much education can hurt.
Lately I’ve been far less timid about my own pain. I understand that sharing isn’t always caring. Not everyone will benefit from listing their tears on Medium. But I do hope that some of us — whoever is ready and willing — can discuss the impact of pain on education; how we heal from it and, when healing isn’t possible, how we teach and learn despite it.