Thursday, October 29, 2009

My AMAZING friend and her speech class. An Inspiration and a Blessing

Current mood: hopeful

Let's preface this post with the fact that I absolutely adore teaching communications to my Sophomores. Classes of 25 aren't OPTIMAL this semester, but they're reality, and I'm dealing with it. But that's not the point of this post. The point is that sometimes teaching that class puts me in physical pain. But let's start from the beginning...

In my mind, communications class should be about the obvious things... writing a good outline, learning how to overcome public speaking fears, adopting positive speaking characteristics, blah blah blah. BUT, there's also this element that I think is equally (if not MORE) important, that is rarely properly addressed in any other class. That element is the whole idea BEHIND communication... connecting with people, knowing yourself, and learning how to relate with others on a less superficial and more PERSONAL basis (which is something kids... or adults for that matter... do less and less these days). In short, I like to run my class with the idea that I'm creating better people, a more community-based school, and whole young people that may use their brains to think outside of their comfort zones and truly LISTEN and EMPATHIZE with other people. There is no laughing in my class (at things that aren't intended to be funny). Anyone that even seems slightly disrespectful to one of their fellow students will face swift and severe punishment (more so than if they actually got up from their seat, verbally assaulted ME, and walked out of the room muttering obscenities and flipping off the general public). I create an environment... ENFORCE an environment at first, that allows students to open up, share, and become better people. Unwaveringly, students recognize the power and liberation that comes with this, and I never have to correct any behaviors after the first speech. They listen to each other because they care. They listen because they want to hear what others have to say, and they listen because they know that when they talk they will be heard. Not just heard, but LISTENED TO.

So that's my classroom. But the perils of this environment started by the third formal speech of my first semester in the district. Students start talking about REAL things. They stop trying to write speeches to be stupid and class-clownish. They share actual life-changing moments and real heroes that inspire them and actual stories that they've likely never shared with another soul in the room. The second semester, this metamorphosis happened sooner. My second year, several people shared tear-filled, heart-felt speeches on the very first INTRODUCTORY speech. This year I think it's gotten around that this class is like free therapy, and the kids are immediately pouring themselves into every interaction in my room. WHICH IS GREAT. But with all this emotion, every unburdening, that weight gets shifted. Unfortunately, I feel so much of it landing on me. Today I held back tears as a student shared a story about how losing his brother in a car accident (my first year in the district... my first week, actually) changed his life. It was his first speech. Through the throat-clearing and blinking, that child maintained eye contact with the room and nearly got through his entire outline before melting onto the podium. He'd told his brother that he hated him before he left the house and was in that fatal accident... he thinks it's his fault. The class quietly cried for him, with him, and a murmur of "it's not your fault" and several shaking heads tried to console him that it is NOT, in fact his fault. It was obvious that he'd never said aloud that he thought it was his fault. But in the moment immediately following that statement, I could feel the weight start to lift off of his shoulders. To say it. Out loud. To have people who would put you back together after you let yourself burst apart... it was like an instant relief for him. And everyone in that room is stronger for that interaction. They were PEOPLE today. When he returned to his seat, weathered, but composed, the student behind him (who lost her brother last year in another auto accident) touched him on his back and he instantly disintegrated into tears. Everyone sat quiet in the realization that life is not high school. Life is not who you're going to homecoming with, and life is not all the petty crap we make it. HE is life. Her EMPATHETIC TOUCH is life. And we're all connected.

I don't know how many speeches will be that raw, but judging from the outlines I saw, I'd say at least a quarter of my (first set of) speeches will be similarly heart-wrenching and deep. In previous semesters, I've heard about bitter divorces and custody battles, parent abandonment, deaths, accidents, expulsions... and even more, horrible, painful events. And every time the class reaction and student reaction is the same. It's this intense community-growing, bonding, weight-lifting experience. And I know I gave them the outlet, safety, and support to do that. But with every story, every horrifically painful view of watching a student PUT THEMSELVES THROUGH THIS to move on, it's like another tiny weight settles on my soul. It kills me how much these kids have hurt in their lives. No one should have to cry through a speech about how their parents didn't want them any more. But they do. And it's criminal that so much has happened in their short little lives that they need to work through it all with 24 other people that they are likely not friends with... and even worse, that they've never had the true connections with people and friends BEFORE this to help them on their way to healing.

I'd never change the way I run my class. But sometimes I wonder how much hurt I can take from other people before my heart will explode. So far, my level of hurt is infinite, as long as it's balanced with the idea that by taking on the hardship will in some way better the person I'm shifting the burden from. From a short-term prospective, the students adore my class. In their reviews, they talk about how much they grow and learn about themselves. At least 90% of them write that they would have never talked to the people in their class before the class, but now they talk to them often. They might not hang out, but they share a sense of something, and I'm egotistical enough to say that it's a direct effect of purging their souls together for 18 weeks in my class. I obviously don't require they share this way. In fact, I don't even suggest it. They just know they can and choose to do it. In the long term, I'd like to see what kind of PEOPLE these are turning out to be. If they're closer with their loved ones. If they're less afraid of things that aren't exactly what they are. If they have empathy for other people (which, horrifically, is a hard thing to find in the walls of high schools). Those things I'll probably never know. But I have hope. :) Hope and a heartache for tonight, but hope nonetheless.