Heavy

We wear our stress until our stress wears us out. The physical toll, unmistakably draining, exacts its punishment mercilessly. Yet we persist in carrying that weight under the misguided impression that we were meant to bear it alone. We shelter others from what we shoulder as though we prove something about our worth in doing so. We exist within community but refuse the benefits of becoming an actual member of that community. We deny support. We deny outreach. And in doing so, we deny our best life. Sleep eludes us; irritability invades. We become merely a shadowing our possibility. We grow weary and feel heavy.

I can discern simply by looking at my high school students where their stress levels are–and a lot of times, I find myself concerned. I do not mean to imply that they should be shielded from discomfort or that they have nothing to learn from it or that sometimes they don’t create it themselves. A healthy amount of intermittent stress and learning to manage it and to cope with it possess the potential to hone life skills in meaningful ways. What worries me is when my kids turn that stress inward and refuse to speak its truth because they think they should simply tough it out. What worries me is when their stress becomes their shame because what they learn in those moments is to feel less than and unworthy…isolated and singular.

So today, I wore the hat of relatively corny principal/English teacher–but I hold no humiliation in actions I think could remotely help even one of my kiddos. As they filed in for assembly today, I asked that each kid grab a rock from a collection that had been scattered on a table. I began by asking how many of them ever felt weighed down or heavy from holding onto their stress. Hands flew up. Then, I explained that sometimes in community, we forget that that we share the space so we can share the burden as well as the bounty. Sometimes we get a little lost and a little blinded to the help that surrounds us. I told them that a visible reminder that they didn’t have to be alone in carrying the heavy seemed like it could be helpful. Then, I asked them to write their stress on their rock and when they felt ready to share the ¬†gravity of that burden, to drop it in a back pack that I would carry around school as that reminder–a reminder that, in fact, people were all around them ready to listen and lighten the load.

There were some very to be expected eye rolls:) But I fully admitted that I didn’t care how silly it seemed, we were doing it because they and their well being are important to me. There was also concern over my carrying a bag with 150 rocks in it, but I told them that I could manage the weight without wavering…not to worry.

At some point today I opened the bag to shift the rocks a bit and saw some of the stressors written on them. The rocks may have been small, the words written flatly across them, but the immensity of what these kids are walking through life with was unmistakable. Part of teaching the whole child, or of seeing the whole human, is owning a willingness to witness the reality of their existence. What may come across as a kid overly concerned about good grades could really be deeper stress that is fed and fostered by something much darker, something much more difficult to manage. And there is no way to know this by simply looking at the surface. We have to be willing to open the door to conversation, to trust. We have to be willing to put on a backpack full of rocks if even for a second it alleviates their weight and allows them to feel seen and loved. We have to be willing to see past our own discomfort to understand that of others.

And not for reward, but simply because this is what we do in community.

We live in relationship with one another.

Hard to be in relationship if we live alone in our own heavy.

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(Day 20! That’s a lot of days in a row:) )

sermonizing

Every so often on a Monday, I have the opportunity to address my entire high school student body. I take that privilege seriously and use it as an opportunity to find new ways to remind my kids that we are in fact a community rather than some cold institution and as such each member has a responsibility to be a decent and kind human being. Without that standard being upheld, we devolve into just a building with people working side by side rather than together…without that, we lose our heartbeat, and the vibrance of who we have always intended to be as a school withers.

We are a small school, so these moments of sermonizing are rather cozy occasions–no microphone needed, just me talking and interacting with 120 kids seated side by side on the floor in front of me. Part of me recognizes that I have usurped a time typically reserved for announcements simply to yield an extra opportunity to teach now that my new position has reduced my class load. (But I am okay with this) I have taught at this high school since the second year of its existence when it only consisted of two grades, 9th and 10th…when I was the English department…when we were only 20 students big. In those early days, it was evident that there was something special about this school we called home…a school where learning for learning’s sake was embraced before grades and test scores…where the operating principle of “be kind, be kind, be kind” centered us everyday…where we were as much a family as a student and faculty body…where cliques were shunned and acceptance of all, required. Most importantly…acceptance of all. Every single kid, no matter their uniqueness was accepted for exactly who they were in that moment and they were given the grace to change as they grew over time. It wasn’t perfect all the time, but it felt ideal at its core.

As we have grown in size, slowly but steadily, it would be easy to move farther away from that beginning…to rise far enough above the core that we forget it is our foundation.

I can’t let that happen.

I have poured too much into this place and I treasure our first few classes of kids who knew this and embodied this and, truly created this bedrock, to walk away from it or to cheat it in any way. Honestly, the main reason I applied to be Head of the High School (having had zero inclination toward administration before) was to preserve the heartbeat of this school…to make sure a stranger didn’t arrive who might not get it…who might unwittingly stray from our purpose and who we are meant to be.

So, here I am. Stealing time on a Monday to reinforce these values in myriad ways. This week, we spoke about judgement…about how what we see of others is sometimes the eighth layer of the wall they have built in order to protect who they really are from being hurt…about how instead of judging others and walking away, maybe we could ask some questions to grind away the layers…about how we can extend each other some grace because sometimes life is hard and a little compassion goes a long way…about how it is not our job to judge, but that it is our job to love, to accept, to uplift the members of our community.

Did they hear any of this? Hard to say, really. But if even one kid walked away with new understanding and with the ambition to act on it, then I’ve done okay…then, the example will be set and spread…then, the time was well spent…then, our little school will continue to strive toward being the community of learners we were created to be, to become.

And hopefully, the tiny community will begin to influence the community at large. Teenagers are pretty remarkable humans. If anyone can begin to change this world for the better, it is them.

(Day 45–I still cannot believe there have been this many daily blogs in a row…two weeks away from king cake!! I cannot wait!!)