Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I had a conversation yesterday that most people will never have in their lifetimes. And I had it with a student. It was disturbing; it was honest; it was fascinating, and it was frightening. I can't go in to particulars, but it if you're imagining what it might entail, you haven't gone nearly far enough. This student is struggling with some serious mental demons and is only back at school for a week-long trial run at being around other people. And while the rest of my class was working away on research, this kiddo sidled up to my desk and proceeded to spill his guts about his last two weeks as an inpatient in a mental hospital. And I listened.

This kid has been on a downward spiral school-wise all year. His behavior has always been excellent. He is never disrespectful, he never distracts others during class, and I've never seen even a hint of temper or violence from him. But he's quick to shut down- just put his head down and do nothing during class. Around the turn of the semester, it started getting worse. As a campus, we jumped in to offer support, but not much seemed to be making a difference. Finally, he was gone for two weeks and his mother called to tell the school he'd been inpatient at a local mental health facility. So when he pulled a chair up to my desk to talk- I couldn't NOT listen. In that moment, I was his teacher, yes, but I wanted to be his friend, too. Which is why I didn't gasp when he told me some of the things he deals with in his mind on a daily basis. I nodded and said, "That sounds intense," and he would tell me more. This conversation went on for forty-five minutes.

This child has lived in poverty all of his life. He shoulders the majority of the burden of raising his three siblings. And he's brilliant. He started telling me some of the things he sorted out in his mind over the last two weeks. He told me he thinks he's figured out why he hates being around men- because of what he's seen them do to his mother whom he loves very, very much. He told me he struggles with trusting anybody, even himself. I told him that was fair- when you can't even trust your own thoughts in your mind, that must be a scary thing. He told me how the people at the mental hospital made him feel like a monster with the questions they asked him. He said, "I DO have some good in me. I know I do."

And I said, "That's not even a question. I see the good in you every time you come to my class," because I do. His smile is one of the most gentle I've seen, and he's quick to come to the defense of people he feels are being treated unfairly.

He talked to me about the obsessive thoughts and feelings he's had as far back as he can remember- even in preschool. And he told me that he doesn't know where they came from, but he knows they came from somewhere, and he's afraid they'll never leave.

And I explained to him that he probably wasn't born with those thoughts and feelings- that his brain learned how to think that way as a reaction to some kind of trauma he may have suffered when he was tiny- something that he in no way was responsible for. And he said, "Yeah, that's what we talked about in the hospital. I couldn't think of anything, but that's probably true." And then we talked about the good news: if the brain can learn to think that way, it can also learn to NOT think that way with lots and lots of hard, gritty work and probably with the help of medication. He smiled and said, "I never thought of it that way." Then he paused and said, "You know, I'm thinking maybe I should've been working with YOU in the hospital the last two weeks!"

I was glad I could offer him a little hope.

For forty-five minutes I just listened and encouraged him as his teacher and as his friend.

Then after class was over, I had some time to sit and try to process all I'd heard and what we'd talked about. I started thinking about it from a mother's perspective. That's innate to me now that I have a little boy of my own. And I started thinking about how absolutely imperative it is that we protect the minds of our little ones.

I had a fantastic counseling professor in my graduate program at OU who broke down parenting in two phases: parenting to protect and parenting to prepare. If we get these two phases twisted or backwards, we can cause emotional damage in our children's lives. We protect our little ones from harm and we prepare our young adults for life in the world on their own. So I started thinking about this notion of "protecting." And it's not one of protecting our children from every curse word and every bit of flesh flashed on the television screen. It's protecting their hearts, their inner-selves, their sense of who they are in the world- where they fit and how they function in it- their senses of humanity and compassion and community. We can protect our children from all the things in the world deemed "inappropriate" for kids and still neglect what we teach them through our own relationships in our homes and with our family members.

The world is cruel and harsh and unforgiving sometimes. Our homes shouldn't be. Mamas, protect your kiddos, so they don't grow up to be lonely, confused adults.


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