All student names have been changed in order to protect their safety.
Middle Schoolers Say the Darndest Things
My husband has a pretty righteous beard. And there are two things none of my middle school students have: a husband or a beard. And for whatever reason, the trend this week was to talk about my husband and his beard.
I pulled my phone out at one point during class to text my supervisor a question. Two of the students I was helping were quick to notice the lock-screen photo of my husband and me at are wedding.
One pointed, and said, “Teacher, is that Jesus?” I chuckled and told her no, that it’s my husband. She simply said, “Oh,” as if she was disappointed and truly expected a different response.
The next day, I sat in the gym when a student from another class came to me. She said, “Miss, can I see a picture of your boyfriend?”
“Sure, but he’s not my boyfriend. He’s my husband,” I told her.
She paused and just stared at me for a moment before saying, “……Jesus…. Christ.”
I opened my mouth to respond to her, but she seemed less interested once I told her he wasn’t my boyfriend. That’s still a mystery to me.
And finally, when we got on the bus later, little Tim asked me about my husband too.
“What color hair does he have?” Tim asked, and I told him brown.
“What about the hair on his face?” he continued, and I told him like black.
“What about his eyes?” he asked once more, and I told him blue-green.
“I KNEW IT! He’s been at my school before! I saw him before,” little Tim stated so matter-of-factly.
And honestly, I just didn’t have the heart to tell him he was probably thinking of a different guy. So I just kept driving.
– – –
Chesa and Ming
This time 5 years ago, I was preparing to cut off 19 inches of my hair. I spent months in prayer over the event, and I wholeheartedly expected God to transform my heart in the process. Back then, cutting off my hair was a symbol of dying to self. It forced me to do something uncomfortable to help strangers, and manifested a spirit of eagerness to give everything within my grasp for the sake of growing in the Gospel and mirroring it.
My hair has grown out significantly since then. And these days, I often find myself sitting in a gym with middle schoolers as students play with my hair. This wasn’t part of my job description when I began working with the after school program, but I’ve gladly taken it. They braid it, take it down, and then French-braid it again. They put it in sleek buns and tie it on top of my hair. They brush it out, and chuckle as they tell their friends in their native language that I have some grays.
And all the while, we just sit and talk. I ask them about school and their families, and they ask about mine too. I ask them about their dreams, and pray for them every second they tell me more.
These are some Burmese girls I’ve really connected with this semester, Chesa and Ming. Our friendship started during my second week of class, when we sat outside and they played with my hair. This week, I learned that they want to live in Florida one day and that one of them wants to be a cosmetologist and the other says her parents want her to be a doctor. As we sat this week, the thought came to my mind: God knows what He’s doing even when I don’t.
He gives us what we need at the right time. He teaches us the lessons we need and gives us the resources we need when we need it all. 5 years ago, as a new believer, I needed every hands-on lesson I could grasp in order to understand the magnitude of this life I had agreed to live for. I had to learn to not want to hold onto the things I loved, and I had to be willing to die to myself. I needed to cut my hair.
But now, to be honest, I don’t find identity in my physical appearance like I did in my early Christian days. Having long, silky hair isn’t a distraction or something I value as much now as I did then. Actually, I considered cutting it off again a couple months ago just because it gets in my way and causes a headache. As I sat with Chesa and Ming this night though, I realized that most of our friendship centers on our conversation that happens when they play with my hair nearly every week.
I thought cutting off my hair was a ministry some 5 years ago, but now I think it’s a ministry to keep it. Just to give me an easy reason to continue building relationships with my new middle school friends—it’s worth it to keep, despite all its headaches and annoyances.
We kept talking as they kept working, and I told Chesa and Ming, “You know, everyone has been saying my husband looks like Jesus.” I showed them a picture, and they doubled over laughing.
Yes, as annoying as it is, I think I’ll hold onto my hair a little longer.
– – –
Notes about Trauma
Although I interact everyday with people who have undergone immense trauma, let me be the first to say with complete confidence: I do not fully understand it. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a psychologist. I’m not an immigration expert. I read and studied literary works in college, and wrote way too many papers about it. That’s the extent of my formal education. Everything else I have learned, I have witnessed on the field or in a few hours of job training.
While I’m not degrading my education or work experience, I do need to make it clear that there are a lot of days when the field I’m working in reflects a side of humanity that I didn’t realize I’d need to be prepared to deal with. There are damages to the human mind and soul that I don’t always know how to respond to.
What I know about trauma is that is completely rewires a person’s brain. The ideal environment for these people is shattered. The chemicals and big words I don’t understand within their body are restructured. It causes them to put up walls, build forts, and hide away in places. The only encouragement trauma offers the human body is the empty promise that all people are bad, every situation you’re in is evil, and you must always protect yourself.
I see the effects of trauma daily. This is why I work with the after-school program to teach our middle school refugees what is right and wrong, and that our team can be trusted. However, this week, I saw it in ways that startled me.
In our little circles, we call it shut-down. It’s when a student loses all self-regulation, and stops responding to reason, kind words, affirmation. It’s when they become seemingly empty. And at that point, teaching is impossible. The only thing you can do is help bring them back to their senses.
I’ve seen it in the Somali sisters I work with, even though I didn’t realize it until I went through training for my newest job at the start of the new year. For months, they have shown up late to class. They tell me they’re tired and busy. They tell me the work is hard, although according to the institution tests, their ability is far greater than they let on during class. They blatantly answer questions wrong and don’t listen. And they’ll wind up sitting in class, gazing off into space. Even as I say their name, there’s a blankness in their eyes. They don’t look up immediately.
And then there’s times when they come to class focus and full of energy. They’re on time, and far surpass my expectations with their reading and writing. They are engaged, and I believe them when they tell me they’re happy about English class.
I, like you’re probably thinking now, have wondered before if they are just lazy students and I’m a bad teacher. I’ve wondered if they just need more rest and easier work. But to be honest, I believe I’m dealing with deeply traumatized sisters who don’t always know how to process what they’ve been through or what they’re going through now. Call it a lie, but I truly believe they “shut-down” in class. I think the broken make-up of their brains makes them give up, stop, and completely stop responding to all reason or affirmation. I have no other reasonable explanation for the depths of sorrow and void I see on their faces in these moments.
I saw it in my middle schooler Maddie this week. When she put her head on the table, and when she lifted her head up long enough to let me talk to her, her expression was empty. Her eyes were blank. She didn’t want to hear or respond to a single thing I said.
When I asked her later if she wanted to choose her prize from the prize box for the week she shook her head no, and when I offered her prize tickets she had worked hard to earn, she turned away. Usually, no matter how upset a student is with me, there is no debate about whether or not they will choose their prize. They always, always do.
But Maddie didn’t.
Later, when I finally convinced her to stand up and walk over to the prize box, I wanted to celebrate. I felt like we were finally taking a successful step in the right direction. Literally and figuratively. And for a few seconds, she looked through the box. But almost suddenly, less than 30-seconds, the blank expression returned. I watched the transformation happen right before my eyes, and it shook me.
Here, on the cold tile of a brightly lit room in a church, sat Maddie. At some point in the past, she sat for days at a refugee camp in Tanzania, but today, she sat in a safe place with a box of candy, toys, makeup, and other gadgets in front of her. The only response she could do muster was to sit motionless and expressionless.
Friends, I don’t know how to explain it. My words fall short, but the image of her sitting there remains in my mind and it breaks my heart. Everything I’ll never understand as she does was there in her eyes. There was sorrow, isolation, painful memories, a confusing present. There was an emptiness that, for a second, made me feel hopeless.
The next day, Maddie told me at the end of class, “Miss, I didn’t get to pick my prize yet. Can I choose now?”
I was taken aback. It was like she had forgotten about the entire incident. It was like she didn’t even remember sitting in front of the box yesterday, after denying nearly a dozen offers of me encouraging her to choose her prize.
Honestly, it scared me. It scared me to see how a person—endowed with a soul and purpose made special in the hands of an Almighty God—could sit with so much void and darkness hiding within them. Not that she is evil, but the things that have been done to her are. I could call it nothing but the evil work of the enemy, and I hated him for that in that moment.
– – –
Sara and Milad
As usual, Sara greeted me early on Monday morning with a smile. Her nearly 2-year old, Helen, smiled bashfully before running to the other room. Helen has gotten used to me. In the past she would run in the other direction without even waving hi or bye. But now, she will stay. And if she doesn’t stay, she is quick to come back. She looks at me with an expression that I can only explain as a shy fascination. She doesn’t bolt away from me anymore than any other toddler I’ve ever met would. And sometimes, she even shakes my hand. Her eyes never leave me and neither does her smile.
Although building a relationship with my students is my first priority, it means so much if I can learn about their families too. Each and every person I interact with is uniquely different—different ethnicity, different story, different family– and it is a huge expression of trust that my students will let me greet their little ones and hold their babies.
The more I learn about the families of my students, the more that I realize: there are so many people to meet. There are friends to be made and strangers to greet—so many of which live in my neighborhood and community.
This week, during out short break during class, Sara served me chocolate cake, lemon cake, and a single strawberry paired with a cup of coffee. As Milad and I waited for Sara to return to the classroom we had spread across the coffee table, we began to talk. In nearly all of our conversations, there is something to be learned, even when it’s communicated in a somewhat broken, mispronounced, incorrect English. Honestly, this is usually the motivation I need to continue going because I’m so eager for the day when we can communicate in full, complete English sentences.
As Milad and I talked, we got on the subject of phones. I always love to hear my students reactions to American culture and lifestyle. Although they speak with the highest respect and kindness toward this new land they are in, I hear it in their voice: this place is different and unlike the home they once knew.
That’s not necessarily good or bad. But it is true.
This time, Milad described to me the people he sees always on their phone. He told me about the people he sees in public, and how their phones never leave their hands. They stare at it, and forget that there are real people standing around them. They choose the photos and typed words on a phone screen before they choose to look up and see the image before the photo is taken and the story in the flesh before its words are typed.
“Their phone is their friend. All the time on it. Too much no good, huh?” he said.
I simply nodded and, against all my training on speaking in complete sentences, agreed, “Too much no good.”