The Light in Pain

When I became a teacher 14 years ago, I began to encounter more sad childhood stories than I could keep track of, ranging from disease, abuse, absentee fathers, immigration issues, dead parent(s), broken homes, poverty, instability, 10 kids sharing a motel room, green snotty noses all year because of no health insurance–you name it.

That was when I realized how vanilla my childhood was, and even my early adulthood. I had two parents who were still married to each other. We owned a home, had food on the table, and nobody had to worry about the electricity getting turned off. I wasn’t abused, other than getting made fun of on a regular basis by my dad and brother. My parents didn’t disappear on us, other than their occasional trips to Hawaii that they never took us on (yeah, we’re still salty about that).

Our days were marked by games of pickle in the street with Dad, riding our bikes like free-range children with the neighbor kids, and too many nights of Mom making cream of chicken for dinner. I didn’t have my own phone line (like a certain head cheerleader with bleached blonde hair did at my school), and I also drove a car that was almost older than me, but you know, those were first world problems.

When you only have first world problems, you have the luxury of being able to focus on your schoolwork. I would check that my homework was filed properly in my trapper keeper at least once before I went to bed, and again in the morning. I slept in a warm bed every night, in my own room. I didn’t have to worry about tomorrow. Everything just sort of worked out on its own. Autopilot.

But not every child is so lucky.

When I met Kenneth, I got an inside glimpse of this.

Kenneth had a son from a previous relationship and an ex-girlfriend who I think would make a terrific horror character for the next Stephen King novel. Forget clowns. I have something better to keep you up at night.

If only I could share the stories, but I still haven’t recovered from the PTSD. Besides, she has probably read this by now and is already on the phone with her lawyer.

When my stepson came to live with us for 2.5 years, I didn’t understand “those” kind of children. And to be honest, I didn’t really understand “those” kids in my classroom either.

Children who don’t care about school.

The kids who don’t respect the teachers.

The kids who aren’t afraid to break the rules.

Who don’t care if they disappoint their family and friends.

Kids who feed off of negative attention.

I was an AP and Honors student who never received a detention in school. This was all far beyond my realm of understanding.

It’s hard to relate to a life that you’ve never had to live. It’s hard to relate to pain that you’ve never had to carry.

My stepson immediately sniffed out the fact that his stepmother hailed from the white picket fences of suburbia, where birds chirped and moms baked banana bread for kids to eat after school. I had no absolutely no street cred with him.

Kenneth had an exceptional way with the wounded. He had a heart of gold when it came to “those” children, and that heart stretched endlessly for his son, and also for any single one of his students. Kenneth was ridiculously patient and nice. His childhood had been similar to mine, except he had to deal with discrimination as a minority in what was once lily-white Orange County, CA. It had been a source of immeasurable pain for him.

When my stepson was a bit older, I remember trying to explain to him that most children today have parents who are not together. That it actually wasn’t very unique, but becoming more of the norm. That he shouldn’t use excuses for his poor choices. I used to plead with him that the destructive things he did were only going to hurt him and his future in the end.

“Don’t you want a good life?” I’d ask him.

He would glower at me.

I mean, what I was saying was true. You can choose the perspective by which you examine your life circumstances and then make choices accordingly. In the end, your life is in your hands. You are responsible. I didn’t tell my stepson anything that I don’t tell my biological children every single day.

But that’s a lot easier said than done, especially in the midst of pain. So I just got glowered at a lot. What the hell did a stepmother know, anyway.

It wasn’t until years later that I began to understand more, and by that I mean I was able to increase my empathy, rooted in experience. But that only happened when Kenneth died.

You need to experience pain to fully understand what leads people to make stupid decisions. Soul-ripping pain that destroys the life you thought you had. For me, it was the first time that I felt irreparably damaged by life. This would change my worldview forever.

I had an awareness that crappy things happened to people, but it was always “other” people. I had some minor brushes with the unfairness of the universe–like Ethan being born premature, and the situation with the stepchild–but we survived. There was a way out of those problems.

There was no way around the fact that my husband’s aorta exploded and he was now campfire ashes.

It’s a serious blow to your psyche.

I had lived my life doing what I thought I was supposed to do, a life-long planner, but in a single moment all of that was gone. Other people would go home to their husbands and their children would have a father to kiss them goodnight and watch them graduate from high school, but not my family. We were exiled to a life of brokenness. The reminders were everywhere: Donuts with Dad at my son’s school, Cub Scout meetings with mostly dads, having to kill my own spiders, anniversaries, holidays, running out of an ingredient and not being able to send my husband to the store, or the way my friend’s husband touched her arm in passing and it reminded me that I no longer had any of that. It all felt so unfair.

That’s precisely when I began to understand how a person could feel jaded enough to stop caring. It feels like nobody cares about you when you’re suffering, and you feel isolated. You feel alone in your misery. So why should you care about anything else?

I finally understood how people coped with their pain by adding more pain, because the pain feels familiar. It becomes a part of you, like an extra limb. We gravitate toward what is familiar, even the bad kind.

It helped me understand other people, and has been particularly beneficial for me as a teacher. Young kids who act out aren’t trying to be a nuisance in the world. They are small people in pain. Unfortunately adults have the same problems, but the pain manifests itself in other ways. Many adults are wounded children in grown bodies.

I truly believe kids are supposed to live in the warm and loving cocoon of childhood where they can have imaginations and dreams and see the world with beginner’s eyes. It is so painful for them when they are deprived of a childhood. Imagine the moment when a small child realizes that the world is cruel. These are children who are given the weight of the world when they aren’t strong enough to hold it yet.

A troubled child had to learn that an idyllic childhood was not in the cards for them, and it wasn’t their fault. But it’s their fate nevertheless. It is such a sad realization for a young person to have to reconcile so early in their life. Most adults can’t even handle it.

I didn’t understand this while raising my stepson. I felt overwhelmed by the situation. I must admit that there are kind and angelic people in the world who can tolerate difficult children in their homes. I am not one of them. It was the most thankless job I have ever had, exacerbated by unmentionable adults in the equation.

I remember when I met my stepson when he was 3 years old. Today I compare that child to my biological children and it only confirms what I felt that first moment when his father nervously introduced us at a Starbucks: this child did not live as a child. You could see it in his eyes. It was in the tenseness of his shoulders. It was in the way that he pushed everyone away. He had defiance in his eyes and this was the same look I had seen in many students.

Small children are not equipped for the bone-crushing force of pain. They don’t do well exiled into the dark world of dashed expectations and then have to pretend to know what the light looks like. They are supposed to grow in the warmth and love, not in the loneliness of pain.

These children have to watch others kids who live in nuclear families, other kids who never had to deal with CPS, those other kids who live in nice homes with regular family dinners and joyful holidays and don’t have to worry about police officers at child custody exchanges and parents who yell at each other. You can imagine what this does to a child’s heart and spirit. For many of them, they become stones, because it’s easier not to break that way.

Many of them take a destructive path to cope with their pain. They get in trouble at school. They don’t do their work. Maybe they aren’t passing a class or graduating. They’re disconnected. They make terrible choices. It’s not that they are bad people. It’s just that they are hurting. The pain is overwhelming for them, and they haven’t learned how to cope and compartmentalize it in their lives.

And then I’ve had other students who have dealt with horrible circumstances like cancer or abuse or homelessness and they were model students and people. As a teacher you might not even notice anything amiss about them, or even remotely suspect that they are in pain, since they show up each day and participate and smile like the others.

But one child is not better than the other. It’s just that everyone has to find their own way to navigate through pain. For those of you who have been submerged in the choppy waters of grief and pain, you know it’s not so easy to swim your way out of it, and if you do, it’s because of important coping skills. We aren’t born with these skills.

And those kids in class getting good grades, smiling, and hiding their pain? It doesn’t mean they are okay. It also doesn’t mean that they will survive.

You have a choice to make when you suffer from pain. You can turn the agony into something meaningful and do constructive things with your life, or you can behave destructively and recklessly and put your happiness in jeopardy.

When Kenneth died, I had a change of heart for my students. Their reasons for not getting assignments in on time, why some students couldn’t put all of their heart into the class, why some didn’t care at all–everything suddenly seemed so valid.

Because it was valid to them.

Now I knew what it was like to feel weighed down, to feel beaten up by the universe, to feel like everything had always been a lie, and to lose confidence in this world. I wasn’t the same girl who checked her trapper keeper every night and every morning to make sure her homework was filed properly. I didn’t have the energy or mental capacity to do that in my now increasingly complex and overwhelmed life.

But I knew early on that I didn’t want to become defeated by it.

People who are constructive with their pain know that they have something to offer the world. That they have a place. Importance. They’ve spent time identifying their purpose and they know they have a contribution to make.

As a teacher, maybe that’s the big shift I’ve had after becoming a widow. Your role isn’t to force obedience and subjugation to your content area. Your role is to coax that love of learning, to inspire them to open their hearts and minds, even if it’s just a little bit. A big part of my job, in my mind, is to help students discover how they can make a contribution to this world. That their voice matters, especially for those who have lived their entire lives feeling like they don’t matter. My job is to make them feel important.

If they don’t do your assigned homework, it isn’t because of you.

If they misbehave, it’s probably not personal.

If they’ve given up as a student, it wasn’t necessarily something you did.

“Disobedience” is not personal.

And children deserve not to be given up on, no matter how terrible they seem. They have many decades left of living. We can’t exile them to an even darker world and expect them to survive.

Recently at our temple, our reverend told a story about being a student of Buddhism and his sensei making him figure out the Buddha-nature of animals. He wasn’t figuring it out, until one day he reflected about how his pet gave him nothing but love and companionship, and he contemplated whether humans did the same. He recalled scolding his dog for being naughty, and a few minutes later the dog was happily seeking his affection, whereas a human might hold a grudge for a long time over being scolded.

The unconditional affection from animals is something most humans are not capable of duplicating.

But it is something to aspire to.

As a teacher, of so many students carrying invisible pain.

As a friend, of so many friends carrying invisible pain.

As a family member, of so many relatives, carrying invisible pain.

As a member of the community, passing so many people carrying invisible pain on the road and in grocery stores and in neighbhorhoods.

As a human being, in a very painful world.

Rumi said, “The wound is the place where light enters.” I would add, if you let it. And if you help others find it.

For me, I want to keep finding my light. I want to be a brighter source of light for other people, and I want to help people realize that there is light inside of them too.

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