The Best Lesson I Didn’t Teach

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” – Joan Didion
We share our stories in order to survive. Story-telling is uniquely, beautifully human. Our ability to communicate and connect through our mutual experience distinguishes us in our mammalian lineage. We paint our stories, dance them, sing them, act them out. We tell stories, we write them.

Story-telling is civilization.

This week we embarked on our final unit of the Baltimore Renaissance Project, during which I will challenge my students to change their world. Wednesday, we began with a Socratic circle discussion. Why do we need a Renaissance in Baltimore? They talked at each other. They talked over each other. They talked around each other.

They did not talk to each other. They did not listen to each other.

Thursday, we told stories. We learned to listen. Stories are the root of communication, the root of civilization. We recorded their Baltimore Stories. A recording device demands attention. Preservation implies importance: your words matter, let’s save them.

Tell me a story… a Baltimore story.

We sat in a circle, surrounding one chair in the center, reserved for the storyteller. One by one, they took they hot seat. They shared their stories.

Baltimore… Me and my friends. I was, like, I was 10, and this boy, Bernie B., right? He was 14. So, we around our way up the hill… we around our way up the hill. We was all on this porch, there were a lotta people on the porch. Lotta people. Then this white car came around the corner – it was a white car… Then they just start shooting. I was, like 10, so I didn’t know what to do. I just ran in the house, for real. So like, we all ran in the house, and they shut the door by mistake. My boy little Bernie B. got shot out there. He was 14. And he died out there.

Children are remarkably candid. If you want to hear their stories, you need only let them know you are listening.

My uncle died. He got shot in the head. Some of my family died from drugs. Some went to jail… I don’t know what else to say.

My 7th grade boys are stoic, but rapt. Death is casual, too familiar. They never learned how to cry, or maybe they forgot.

They shot him six times. 

Gun violence has touched them all. They live in an urban warzone.

I was sad…
He didn’t have insurance… 

They just let him die. 

We have one part-time social worker and one part-time psychologist for 400 students. We triage their tragedies.

They just started shooting…. he’s paralyzed now.
They stabbed him 8 times. There was blood on the floor… yea, I was crying and stuff.
I started runnin’….
…molested me when I was 6.

My students need more, deserve more. They need equitable resources (not to be confused with equal resources). How many Baltimore City students suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? How Montgomery County students suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

How do I teach the ancient past when they are preoccupied with grieving the present? How can I call myself a Social Studies teacher if I ignore my students’ psychology, anthropology, geography?

My Dad… he got sent to jail in North Carolina. I’m afraid I’ll never see him again.

Yesterday, these two girls were at each other’s throats. But today?

I know how you feel. My Dad’s in jail, too. Sometimes it helps me to think about him coming home.

They hug and cry and mourn together. And tomorrow? Tomorrow, they will remember they share the same pain.

He killed my baby brother.
She did a lot of drugs…
My Dad got shot 6 times.

I’m ill-prepared. I met the credentials, passed my Praxis, and hung my Master’s degree on the wall. I’m ill-prepared. I can write a lesson plan, design curriculum, and assess mastery, but I was not trained to counsel grief.

If I’m supposed to teach them, who’s supposed to heal them?
Her head hit the pavement… there was blood everywhere.
When my sister died…

Let’s stop pretending all our problems with education are in the classroom. 

I heard gunshots
I saw him outside my window.
I lost my baby sister…

All my 6th grade girls are crying – not just tears: wailing, keening, heaving. My classroom is a trauma unit. I panic. Have I done something bad? Have I done something brilliant? My principal is going to kill me. I am surrounded by 30 teenage girls in crisis.

They have never told their stories before. So, tell me your story, any story. 

He was drunk, he didn’t see her.
…held a knife to my throat
My Dad told me to hide in the closet.
They took me away from my Mom… they separated me from my brother and sister.

They call her dirty, call her ugly, make fun of the way she talks.

Sometimes I want to kill myself.* Some people are just born that way… It’s not right.

Across the room, another girl starts to weep.

I did that. That was me. I called her names. I never knew…

I hold her tightly (because guilt is grief, too) and whisper, Tell her you’re sorry – and mean it. She does. They hug. They listen. I see them laughing together after school. The panic recedes.

I got a lotta stories. Lotta stories…

These are our Baltimore Stories. Were you expecting crabs and Camden Yards?

* I referred this student to the mental health specialists at my school.

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