Teaching Through Tragedy

April 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

As are many of you who might come to read this post, I am up late and haunting the house, attempting to generate some sense of meaning in the wake of today’s tragedy at the Boston Marathon. I offer these thoughts out of honor and respect for those who were impacted today, either directly or indirectly– not as any sort of pIublic declaration, but as a way of processing the trauma in an internal way.  Those of us who write often feel impelled to set down our thoughts in various forms, but never more so in times like this, in part to make something coherent out of something so senseless.  As a teacher, I feel that urgency to respond a bit more acutely.  Our students will be looking to us for that same coherence when we arrive in classrooms tomorrow morning.  The best I will be able to offer them is this– some evidence of my own struggle to normalize the presence of uncertainty and grief. 

Full disclosure: my second day as a fully fledged professional educator was September 11, 2001.  As the school community attempted to piece together the tragic images and reporting from our (on that day) even more acutely remote-feeling outpost in Connecticut’s Housatonic Valley, I remember sensing that I had turned a corner from adolescence to adulthood.  Students were now looking to me for meaning, explanation, reassurance, and I had precious little to offer.  In the face of something so generationally significant, not many could, beyond simply open ears and a steady shoulder. 

In the years since, I have taught through tragedy in varying degrees and have arrived at the conclusion that we see the best of schools at the worst of times.  Some of these hurts are still so raw that the pain returns anew on days like this; we know that students of all backgrounds in our communities are struggling with their own grief–no matter the source– in similar fashion.  As the news from Boston unfolds, we will grapple with deep sadness and search for ways to support those who have been impacted in some way.   Our conversations on a school campus revolve around how to best work through these traumas with our students; they are apt to be most keenly affected by an event whose roots we do not– and may not –understand, and whose particulars have unfolded in excruciatingly graphic detail on air and online.  WBUR’s CommonHealth Blog offers guidance from child psychiatrist Dr. Gene Beresin on “How to Talk to Children About Boston Marathon Bombs”; others have circulated widely Fred Rogers’ famous advice to “Look for the Helpers.”  All good advice, and well worth repeating.  What can we really say to make sense of tragedy on an unimaginable scale? Tragedy replayed so soon after Newtown, and Aurora?  Tragedy that unfolds against the backdrop of international tensions on the Korean peninsula, and seemingly daily bombings of equal or greater magnitude in places like Iraq and Afghanistan?  The school bell rings (or metaphorically rings, in our community) tomorrow at the usual time, just as it will at schools across the Commonwealth, and we will begin the work of speaking, again, to our students about the unfathomable.

If you have a school community in your life, count yourself among the fortunate, as odd as that feels at a time like this.  Perhaps you work in one, learn in one, send a child to one, or otherwise feel some form of attachment as a graduate, neighbor, or friend.  I can’t substantiate this assertion with my own research (I’ll count on others to come to my assistance, if my opinions are warranted), but I will posit that at least a portion of the psychic hurt that folks feel in the wake of tragedies like this one stems from a lack of meaningful connection to thoughtful and supportive community organizations — a lamentable affliction of our modern, atomized times. Schools, while not the sole solution to these issues, are nonetheless uniquely suited to tackle the challenge of generating some sense of comfort and meaning for our young people. 

From our History teachers, our students discover what it means to live in times of violence, and to trace, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “the arc of the Moral Universe” on its path towards some fulfillment of “justice”– not justice in the retributive sense, but as a form of redemption.  In our Science classrooms, we come to understand the laws of the physical universe, including the ways in which death and decay are the very seeds of fertility and new forms of being.  Our English teachers offer perspective on the enduring value of human connection, and how to find the miraculous in the everyday, no matter how much pain that day also happens to hold.  On our playing fields, our coaches show us that the athletic endeavor, with its attendant struggles and triumphs, transcends mere numbers on a scoreboard.   These lessons are there for us in the midst of media clamor about today’s tragedy, too: first responders who cared for the gravely injured; marathoners who crossed the finish line and headed straight for blood donation lines; ordinary Bostonians who offered space in their homes to those residents and runners displaced by the blasts.

Understandably, one tends towards despair at a time of senseless tragedy, but let’s commit ourselves to offering something different for our students.  While we cannot offer answers, our communities can model ways of thinking about how best to come of age in confusing times, and how to navigate a painful world with some measure of resilience.

Even if we might have a hard time appreciating them, we know that our schools are special places.    In times of tragedy, we see most clearly their possibility — that mystic alchemy of spirit and reason by which we might transform fear and hate into love.  Someday, anyway.  Tomorrow is as good a day as any.


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