By Chakka Reeves
When I moved back to Chicago two years ago, I not only wanted to be closer to my mother, but I wanted to “do the work,” so to speak. I left Chicago first for graduate school and then a job, but I was also leaving behind the pains of non-parental child abuse. For the most part, spending my mid-to-late 20s on the East Coast gave me new perspective, new opportunities and new relationships, but pretty soon the old issues followed me. After a while, I knew I needed to deal with these wounds. I knew that living in Chicago again would bring things up that needed to be healed, but I had no idea that my first job when I returned would amplify this process.
This process is most apparent in the relationship I have with one student, Kaya (not her real name). One day after our summer program, I walked to the bus with her, which is not far from my house. I asked her questions about her upcoming trip to college. She was sullen, looking down and ahead but not at me. Her replies were mumbles, whispers, shrugs or a combination of the three. Being diagnosed with depression at 16 myself, I remembered what it was like to be at that stage of it. Even questions you have the answers to are an irritation at this stage. So, for a while I stopped asking questions and just walked with her. When I could no longer bear the silence, I said only this: I've been where you are.
In 2013 I started teaching video production in several alternative schools in Chicago, and this year I taught English as well. I had never taught high school or even had a program for high school students before. That and the fact that I didn't give much weight to what “alternative school” meant left me woefully unprepared. It took a while for my shock to wear off, but looking back, I'm glad that I didn't go in with any biases. Every now and then, when a teen was particularly obstinate, another teacher would pull me aside and give me some information that was suppose to provide context, such as their recent release from a correctional facility, past physical or sexual abuse, a parent that was more friend than guardian. I understood not to take the behavior personally but my ego was weary and my heart was tired. I'd keep thinking, “I get it, but I don't GET it.” Around the end of my first year, I was convinced that I had ran out of empathy and was pretty close to running out of steam.
One night, after a particularly harrowing day in the classroom, I laid in bed and thought about my own middle school experience. I was a smart-mouthed, spirited child if you will, who once punched my best friend in the face for taking my sandwich. Since we are still friends to this day, I talked to her one night and said, “We were really wildin', ya know? If we had been at a public school today pulling that mess, we would be in an alternative school.”
I wasn't exaggerating when I made that statement. Other than pregnancy and incarceration, most of the kids at the schools where I worked are there because they fought too often or too hard. I got it, but at that moment I GOT it.
These kids are me.
The girl with the pink hair who won't let you talk to her any kind of way? That's me.
The boy who kicks butt in my video class but is failing my English class? Me.
The kid who is so smart he doesn’t think he has to do any work? Me, all day every day.
The student who feels singled out, but doesn’t understand that her actions are what is setting her apart from her peers? Oh yes.
I was in a classroom filled with myselves.
Some methods of inner child healing work require you to recall a painful childhood memory and step into the role of the parent or protector that you wish that you had. With teaching, I didn’t have to pretend. The children were there, asking for protection and guidance, sometimes in aggressive and unproductive ways. Sometimes that meant softening my tone and being a calming presence in the chaos. Other times it meant puffing my chest out, putting some bass in my voice and clearly asserting boundaries. At all times, it required that I put myself not in the place of my childhood, but a place even darker, as most of my students have experiences that make mine seem like a cakewalk in comparison.
On the day before she left for college, I shared with Kaya one thing that I’ve learned in my healing process. Feeling things is needed, even when the feelings are unpleasant. As we shared tears, I told her that though I was sad that I wouldn’t see her as often, even the sadness is good. It was a sign that I cared enough, loved enough, put myself out there enough. We can only feel sad when we connect to something or someone outside of ourselves. Kaya said “I like that. Now I feel happy about it.”
Before she left, I hugged her one last time. I hugged her for all the hugs we both needed and missed. I hugged her for all the times I couldn’t hug her in the future. I said “see you later,” knowing it was true. I would not only see Kaya in the future, but the child I’m healing is no longer in the shadows. She is here and she is happy too.
Chakka Reeves is a writer, educator, filmmaker and media nerd. Primarily, she is the writer and editor of Freedomreeves.com an online publication that looks at the intersections of identity and media. As the daughter of an expert cook and home economics teacher, wellness through nutrition has always been a part of her life. Currently, her path includes seeking spiritual wellness and cultivating a community that appreciates feminine energy as a necessary and balancing force in the world.