Well, my friends, I haven’t written in weeks. And although I’m sorry that I haven’t been faithful in telling you about the latest refugee stories in our corner of Southeast Nashville, they have continued on regardless of whether or not I’ve been faithful to document them.
Honestly, that is one of the sweetest lessons I’ve learned about Jesus: He is faithful to continue His work, even when I’m not. He doesn’t need to stop and rest. He doesn’t need to learn how to better manage time. He doesn’t need me to accomplish His plans, but He invites me along. That’s a pretty sweet invitation.
There have been new students to meet, babies to prepare for, trips to take, paperwork to fill out, curriculum to design, and breaks to take. A lot has been happening in this direction, and I’m grateful that you’re here to read about what’s happened when I wasn’t writing.
I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much I enjoy living it.
The Zomi girls who like to braid my hair
Although last week was spring break for the middle school program, we offered to take the 5th graders on their field trip for the year. The plan was to go the Adventure Science Center. My task was pretty simple: pick up the girls in the mini bus, get them to the Negley Boulevard, and help them have fun.
Once we arrived at the building with an enormous pyramid on the top of it—the one that overlooks downtown from a huge hill—we counted and split into teams. I was excited when my supervisor paired me with two of the Zomi girls who like to braid my hair. We were a team, and our job was to stick together during the trip. They were excited, and I was eager for our time together. They ran ahead, and I tried to keep up. We climbed a tower, played games against life-sized germs, took pictures with a dinosaur, and gazed at huge models of the solar system.
Near the end of the trip, we were given an extra 15 minutes to look at one more thing we might have missed on the trip. The girls told me they wanted to play the brain game, and we ran with fingers crossed that the line had died down.
Thankfully, there was no line. We only needed to wait for the two current players to finish. The girls didn’t want to wait, a trend that I had noticed from the moment we got on I-65 to head to the science center, and I tried to encourage them to wait just another minute.
Finally, it paid off and we were up. Basically, the point of the game was to see which player of the two could “out-relax” the other. Both players sat and wore a gadget on their head that measured the activity in their brains. The goal was to be so calm, relaxed, and focused, that there would be a nearly flat line to show your brain movement. The higher the waves on your screen were, the less relaxed you were, and the more likely you were to lose.
I had watched the people before us. The waves on their screen had started off high, but eventually nearly evened out. Sure, there were mountains here and there, but on the whole—they were obviously calm.
I remembered that as I watched my refugee Zomi friends attempt to “out-relax” each other. Their brain waves were high and jumpy at first, and I was certain they would calm down.
Throughout the entire 3 or so minute game, the girls sat. One sat with her hands cupped over her mouth, and the other closed her eyes. They looked somewhat relaxed and focused, but the waves on their screen proved otherwise.
“It’s broken,” I thought to myself about the machine. But then I was reminded of the traumatic psychology videos I had watched during my training. I realized, “It’s not broken. They are.”
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a dozen times: I’m not an expert. But, what I have learned is trauma impacts the entire wiring of a person’s brain. One of the effects is the forces the brain to surrender any still or calmness. The brain is always running on high, usually in an effort to be on guard in survival mode. Every time in the past that those girls thought, “I’m hungry. I’m scared. I’m cold,” and those needs were not met, contributed to the rewiring of their brains.
They came as refugees and a lineage persecuted for their faith. I’ll never know all they’ve seen or gone through.
They learned to be on guard, instead of receiving comfort. They learned to experience hurt and fear, when they should have been experiencing safety and love. They learned to always be on guard, when they should have been able to trust that they were safe. They learned how to uproot and resettle in a place they didn’t get to choose—Nashville, TN—when they should have been able to seek refuge and safety in the place of their ancestors.
But, the world isn’t perfect. And with that, I have to remember that sometimes my students act out not because they don’t want to be better, but because they literally don’t know how to. In steps the high, yet humble, task of the teacher: to teach the right way with grace and kindness.
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I pick the middle schoolers up from school 3 out of 4 times a week. Some days they’re ready to listen, and other times, it takes some time to get them settled. During the bus rides, I often hear a wide range of totally random comments.
On this particular day, there were some Congolese girls sitting behind my driver’s seat. I have no clue what they were saying or what they were discussing, but I tuned into the conversation just in time to hear my sweet, very small, student Shelby say:
“They might say you’re ugly, but you’re really just cute in your own way.”
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The Burmese Women
Before spring break, I wanted to give my higher-level class an extra challenge. I wanted to teach them how to express frustration. To be honest, I was worried about the lesson. Not only did I worry it would be too difficult to grasp, but I also wondered how’d they respond to using English in a somewhat “negative” way. But, we went for it.
That day in class, I only had 5 of my Burmese students. They are all women, wives, mothers. We spent more time laughing and chatting and asking questions. And y’all, I used every second to cultivate a place of vulnerability and safety.
Although I would never want to lead my students down hateful or unkind roads, I know that being a wife is hard. I know that sometimes your husband, despite all his love and trying, can sometimes still forget to wash the dishes or take out the trash. I’ve also heard that parenting is difficult too. Sometimes the babies will cry, and cry, and cry. And all you want is for them to rest so you can rest too.
You know, that’s just part of being human. We frustrate each other, and things don’t always meet our expectations. Reality and what we want are often different. Usually during my classes, I like to learn about what my students like, and what inspires them. But during this class, I really sought to learn more about what frustrates them. Honestly, my ultimate goal was to show them that it’s okay to have feelings, even when they feel negative.
At first, it was difficult to talk about it. By the end of class thought, we were laughing and joking, and really being honest about these things. During one of our last activities, I wanted to find out what frustrates them. These are some of the things they said:
- It bugs me when the schools asks for more money.
- I can’t stand it when the house is dirty.
- I hate traffic.
- It bugs me when the grocery store is expensive.
- I can’t stand it when I can’t talk to people.
- I hate it when I can’t speak English.
It was a difficult lesson, and really stretched their language abilities. But, it was worth it. Just to be reminded that they get frustrated by the same things we do, was worth it.
I forget often that I work with living, feeling, thinking humans. Seriously, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of just viewing them as students who don’t understand. It’s my most earnest and passionate prayer that I would never become desensitized to their humanity. They feel things just as you and I do, and think about the world and life too. Just because they can’t always talk about it with us doesn’t make it any less valid.
My job is to empower them. My job is to step in, when everyone else just wants to point out all they’re doing wrong, and encourage them that they’re valuable people capable of learning a language, making a beautiful life in a foreign land, and acknowledging every single feeling and thought that comes with it. Because the reality is, for a long time they didn’t have the luxury of knowing their feelings were important. When they ran to refugee camps and were shoved out of their homelands, they didn’t have the liberty to trust that their life—including all their thoughts and feelings—were important enough to protect.
You’re mad they don’t know English? They are too.
You’re upset they won’t answer simple questions at the grocery store? They know.
You don’t think they’re trying to do well with the second chance they have in America? Wrong.
Have grace and patience, friends. The same people you might get frustrated by have thoughts, fears, hopes, feelings. They’re made in the image of the same God as you are.
In the words of Pocahontas (deep, I know),
“You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You’ll learn things you never knew, you never knew.”
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This semester has been a learning experience for me as a teacher. One of my biggest learning opportunities has been in dealing with some of my most difficult middle school students. Kyle, one that I’ve written about on this blog before, has had some really great days but also some really hard days. There’s usually no in between.
Something we’ve toyed with in our program is the use of a disciplinary checkmark system modeled after the public middle school the students attend, but tweaked to encourage better choices and second chances as opposed to simply repeating, “You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong.”
I won’t bore you with the details, but I will say it’s proven to be a pretty effective system. It is the most tangible way that I can hold my students accountable to making better choices, and having “evidence” to talk through solutions to our problems later.
My sweet student, Kyle, has gotten at least 1 checkmark each day. Usually for leaving class without asking, often times for talking at inappropriate times or not following instructions. However, he made some really great choices last week. I’m not sure if spring break and time to play was what he needed, but he came back ready to listen and work.
Monday passed, and he didn’t get any checks.
Tuesday passed, and still no checks.
To my shame, I hadn’t even realized how significant this was… until he came to me about it. He came to me frantically at the end of class with his checkmark sheet attached in his folder.
“Mrs. Brianna, checks! My checks!” he said, pointing to the paper.
Confused, I just nodded my head. I eyeballed the messy, inked up paper, and said, “Oh yeah, Kyle, these are your checks…”
“Mrs. Brianna, today my checks,” he said, still pointing.
I paused. Thought. And realized. “Ohhh, Kyle. You didn’t get any checks today! You didn’t get any yesterday either! You stayed in the classroom, you worked hard on Lexia, you were respectful of me and your classmates,” I explained.
He smiled from ear to ear.
“I good?” he said.
“Yes, Kyle. You’re good,” I told him.
He walked away, and the smile didn’t leave his face. I’ve thought about that so many times since then. It’s a victory to celebrate and he knows it too. And I’m grateful for the chance to get to encourage him every step of the way—even when he probably thinks I’m the difficult one for giving him the disciplinary checks in the first place.
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Mrs. Brianna’s Class
We have an ongoing class competition at after school. We compete in attendance and minutes spent on our literacy program. Let me tell you about my class: they have consistently won in at least one category since December. In February, they really surprised us by taking the cake in BOTH categories. Then, I was amazed by the hard work they are dedicate to.
Last week, we found out that my class won in both categories. AGAIN. Of the 15 students multiplied by the 15 possible days of programming we had last month, there were only 8 absences. What? On top of that, they spent over 300 minutes on average improving their literacy. Again… what?
They could be doing a million other things after school. They could be playing soccer, babysitting, derping around on Facebook. But instead, they choose to continue learning. They choose to sit a little longer. They choose to work a little harder.
My sweet Shelby innocently asked me last week as we prepared to play a game of alphabet Bingo, “Mrs. Brianna, why do we always play games? We came here to learn!”
What she doesn’t realize is she and her classmates are. They are making huge strides of improvement, and it’s been an honor to play such a small role in that for them the last few months. I’m only a witness to the success stories that are being weaved in them. These are the kids that are going to make a positive difference, whether it be here in our Southeast corner of Nashville, or somewhere on the other side of the world.
A couple of the girls wrote me a note the last day before spring break. They said:
We say thank you for teaching us. We are really thankful for everything that you guys did for us. We have to thank to y’all for teaching us and we learn more and more from you guys. But if we did not be respect we say sorry. But you guys are the good teachers. We know that some time we didn’t be respectful to y’all. But all the human can not stay without do some mistake.
We will always loves you, Ms Brianna. The best teacher.”
Wherever they go, I believe in them. I’m so proud of the things they’ve already accomplished, and the things coming ahead.