Toughen Up, Buttercup

A former classmate’s comment about how safe spaces and group discussions where kids express emotion are ruining this generation got me to thinking, and thinking often gets me to writing, as you may have noticed.

I am aware of a new concept in education of “safe spaces” for students who may encounter ideas or works which trigger their own feelings around a traumatic event or where students of particular marginalized groups can get together without people outside of those groups to talk. I can’t really speak with authority about them as they actually function because I’ve never actually seen one or used one. I know people often go off half-cocked about how great something is or how terrible it is without actually knowing anything about it. My experience in life is that when you really delve into anything, you find out there are pluses and minuses.

My classmate conflated this concept (which he clearly doesn’t like) with a support group environment I’ve used in my classroom for a couple of decades. I will shamelessly admit that making my classroom feel “safe” has been a pretty important thing to me for my entire teaching career.

I hear a lot that “life is hard and we have to toughen kids up.” I figure that’s kind of true, but I also think that life shits on people enough to toughen them. They don’t need to get shit on in my classroom to make it in the world.

It’s not that I favor bubble-wrapping kids. I was not a helicopter parent. I didn’t take care of my kids’ problems with peers or teachers for them. I figured they needed to learn that themselves. I let them walk to the bus alone and play and fall down and get bruised. I am a teacher of literature, and with that, I often touch upon history and current events and human issues that are timeless, all of which tend to expose kids to just how awful people can be to each other. No bubble-wrap here.

People commit atrocities because of race (To Kill a Mockingbird and The Power of One) and politics (Long Way Gone). People betray one another and destroy lives in the name of religion (The Scarlet Letter). Economic injustice and greed exist, and they suck (The Great Gatsby). People get raped and people suffer depression (Speak). Abortion is a complicated subject, and the more deeply you look at it, the less clear the whole thing is in either direction, plus, there are a lot of ways we treat people as disposable besides abortion (Unwind). Childhood is not all innocence and playing fair, and in the end, all this is a reflection of adulthood (Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye). These are just a few of the books I’ve taught over the years.

Literature, I tell my students, is an instruction manual for life. It allows us to come together and explore the most difficult parts of being human in a way that is unattached to us and provides us a bit of distance. Maybe we even read about something before we experience it, so when we do experience it, we are not utterly taken by surprise. When we read The Scarlet Letter and talk about Roger Chillingworth, I make a dark promise to my kiddos: If it hasn’t happened to you yet, someday someone will do something unforgivable to you, and you must decide how long you will carry that weight before you put it down.

I do not think it is in a student’s best interests to allow them to opt out. I don’t think parents should opt their kids out, nor do I think schools should.

I do think the classrooms in which these things are discussed should feel safe. I think rape victims who don’t want to read graphic descriptions of rape should be allowed to take care of themselves by skipping that section, maybe even take a break to “go to the bathroom” and breathe, if needed. If the trauma is very recent, okay, maybe you can bow out altogether.

But I’ve had my share of trauma, and I don’t retreat every time a reflection of that trauma comes up. I don’t voluntarily do school shooting stuff, so no, I haven’t read The Hour I First Believed, nor have I seen Elephant. If either were required for a class or something else I was doing, I could swing it. Whatever trauma I have personally experienced, I will discuss more frankly with those who have shared the experience, so I see the value of gatherings of only those who have experienced the trauma. I also think that being the direct target of homophobia, racism, et cetera is traumatic. I’m in no position to tell people whose experiences are unlike mine what they have “the right” to be hurt by.

And don’t tell me that people “shouldn’t” be hurt by these things. If I tell you that a knife shouldn’t wound you and you shouldn’t bear a scar from a knife wound, will that make you immune to being cut? Will it keep a scar from forming?

This is why classrooms should be safe. So kids can say what they think and hear what others think without needlessly inflicting damage on each other. You’ll get cut in the kitchen enough times in your life. No one in school needs to bring a blade to “toughen you up,” metaphorically speaking.

Now, for those who don’t know me and don’t know about the class I teach, it’s called ACE (Alternative Cooperative Education). Before you go off on how “cooperative” probably means some new-agey shit, like teaching people to cooperate with each other, the “cooperative” actually means that we work in partnership with business leaders to make sure our kids are learning the skills businesses need. (Ironically, the ability to cooperate with others tops that list.)

I teach reading, writing, and business skills with a healthy dose of personal responsibility and work ethic to kids who have not been super successful in traditional classes. These are not kids with disabilities; they are generally kids who don’t do school for a variety of other reasons. Are some basically just lazy? Sure. But none of them is stupid, and many of them have back-stories that I find make super-judgey people awfully uncomfortable. (I just re-read that. I’m not saying kids with disabilities are stupid; I’m just asking that readers not make that assumption about my kiddos.) Think things like having both parents in jail because when you were 8 years old your body was being sold to pay for Dad’s drug-habit, then going through the foster care system for years. Think using drugs and alcohol with mom or dad while you were still in preschool. Think getting the crap beaten out of you by your dad until until you were finally big enough to hit back. Think being told your whole life that you are worthless, that you’re the reason your mom or dad’s life is total shit. A former student recently made a comment to me along the lines of thinking her life had been much rougher than almost any other student I’d had. Don’t get me wrong—she’s had a damned hard time of it. Still, the look on her face when I shared a few others’ stories said a lot about what we assume children’s lives are all like.

If your life was hard, but none of this stuff happened to you, and you thought helping kids feel safe would ruin them, make them soft, well, now maybe you have a different understanding.

So in my classroom, it’s okay to cry. It’s even okay to cry “just” because some other kid called you a name, because sometimes that name is simply the straw that breaks the camel’s back. You can cry because the work I’m asking you to do is hard and you’re frustrated. When you’re all done crying, I’ll make you do the work anyway, but it’s okay to cry.

And if you cry, I will ask if you want a hug. It’s okay to say no, and I’ll respect that. It’s okay to say yes. In my classroom, you can just walk through the door and ask for a hug, and you’ll get it. Even if you are 6-foot-6 and headed into the Marines in two weeks when you graduate. Heck, if you’re a former student who has done multiple tours of duty in a combat zone, I will meet you for a beer, sit with you while you cry in it, and give you the same hug I gave you when you were a kid. (I have actually done this.) In my experience, this does not prevent said Marine from returning to the combat zone weeks later.

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Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
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