Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, but Sometimes Words May Heal Me (Redux)

At church, one of our ministers talked about reminding troubled students who they really are, and she told about dealing with a trio of trouble-makers by reminding them of the best about themselves.  In the end, it did more than any school punishment had done to remediate their behavior.

It made me think of one of the more powerful days in ACE class a few years ago.  As it happens, it was an unplanned digression from a unit I’m currently teaching, so I thought I’d repost an old blog about it.  I originally posted this on 3/14/06.  It was a response to a regular contributor to my old blog.  I wrote it while I was away from ACE, hence the past tense about the class.  Obviously, I teach it again:

Is it true that words can’t undo the brutality that life sometimes dishes out? Not completely, that’s for sure, but sometimes, I think we forget the power of words and the power of honesty.

I used to teach ACE, which was a class for at-risk students, kids who were being given one last shot at staying in school before they were kicked out because school, Columbine anyway, just clearly wasn’t going to work for them. I’m proud to say that we kept a lot of those kids, and that their success in our program led to success in the rest of their classes and success when they went back to traditional English classes the next year. In short, this class was filled with some of the most troubled kids in our school. Sure, some were just unmotivated, but some were truly, deeply troubled.

I had a boy one year who, at the age of 16, had just moved back in with his mom after spending years in foster care. He’d been taken away as a preschooler because his mother and her friends had been giving him LSD. They thought it was funny to watch a four-year-old trip out. I had a girl who’d been adopted into a family at the age of 10. She was taken away from her home because her father had been selling her body to pay for his drug habit. A year after her adoption, her adoptive father was in an accident at work and permanently paralyzed from the waist down—a lot of upheaval in that family.

That’s a taste of what some of our kids had been through. My partner and I used to give an assignment we called the “self-perception assignment.” (We did a lot of what we call “affective education,” meaning that it was about developing life-skills and emotional coping mechanisms.) The assignment required them to first write a paragraph describing how they thought others perceived them, then one about what they were truly like—how the wrapping was different from what was inside the package. We stressed that we weren’t asking them to care how anyone perceived them, simply to be aware of what they projected. Finally, we paired them up with someone they didn’t know well in the class, and asked them to write a paragraph each of their impressions of each other.  It was a risky assignment, but the kids had been in the class together two hours a day, five days a week, and we gave it in the spring, when we’d really done a lot to establish a sense of trust and respect.

Well, one year, we had a really tough bunch, and they were VERY resistant. They insisted that there was no way to be honest with other people about how you perceived them and still be respectful. It blew me away—the idea that anything respectful anyone might say to someone else, anything complimentary, must be dishonest. These kids were all about self-esteem (they had none) and clueless about self-worth. My partner’s and my MO, whenever kids said that something we were asking couldn’t be done, was to do it and model it for them. Let me tell you, what happened this one day would never have worked if we’d planned it. It was completely spontaneous.

My partner and I took turns; he described one kid, and then I described the next. We went student by student and gave them our 100% honest, unvarnished opinions.

“Becca, you’re smart, and you don’t care who knows it. It’s evident in every word you say, but you don’t follow through. It’s like you’re afraid that if you put your ideas on paper, they won’t seem as smart as when you said them. You come off as this tough girl that no one can touch, but inside you are broken glass from every person who’s ever hurt you.”

“Evan, you struggle. School, especially reading, doesn’t come easily, and you’ve completely convinced yourself that you can’t do anything. But you’re quick with a comeback and you have a wicked sense of humor. A person has to have a quick mind to be able to do that. You don’t have to be book-smart to have a good mind. That’s the lesson you’re here to learn.”

“Nick, you have a generous heart. You’re the person everyone comes to. In a lot of ways, you take on too much, and there’s not enough room for school…”

For a full 50 minutes, the 28 toughest, rowdiest kids in the school were dead silent. They listened intently to each description. You could see the anticipation as we got closer to each of them. Many couldn’t raise their eyes from the table when their turn came, but they held perfectly still, almost didn’t breathe. There were a lot of tears that day. When we were finished, you could hear a pin drop until Becca said, “Wow. You guys really know us.”

“Do you feel respected?” I asked. “Accepted?”

Enthusiastic nods all around.

“Did you think we were bullshitting any of you?” (You could talk to them that way in ACE from time to time. I used the privilege judiciously.) They shook their heads vehemently. Then they begged to be allowed to describe my partner and me.

“Mrs. Reed, sometimes you come across as a bitch, but it’s really because you want the best for us…” A teacher can hear no higher praise.

“Mr. T, you’re like the dad of the group…”

The papers they wrote were the best we’ve ever gotten from this assignment. They were thoughtful and open. The feedback we got over and over again was that it was the first time anyone had told those kids what was good and valuable about them that they really believed the person who was saying it, because we were honest about their faults, too.

Honestly, I’m sure it wasn’t the first time. I think it was just one of the most memorable because of the circumstances. It wasn’t something we could repeat every year. It has to be the right moment, the right kids; they have to be open to it in the moment, but the words we all spoke that day were magic.

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