I had been holding on all week, straddling a gossamer thread like a trapeze artist. I could feel myself falling, but I had to stay upright, just until the weekend; I had to propel my form forward just to make it through the day, and then I could rest.
This week was full of conflict. It came in many forms and appeared frequently throughout the day. Each built, one upon another, and I held each one as precious projects that needed my careful attention. And these were not just everyday disagreements, but intense and some long standing conflicts that bubbled up and made themselves known. My colleagues who know me, who have worked with me, also know that I worked previously in conflict resolution. They know that I take time with conflict, that I let it steep like a good cup of tea to be savoured once it is understood. But on this day, conflict overflowed and I cried in front of my students.
It was a Friday afternoon, the tension in the building felt palpable, and I’m sure I carried its vibrations into the classroom with me. I was giving my students time to observe, to watch a video while some chatted and I tried to centre myself. Halfway through the period, a disagreement between students broke out and words were hurled like weapons over desks. I listened and waited strategizing, reflecting. These are senior students and there was no hate, no violation of dignity, just disagreement and conflict. But, when I could see it begin to froth around the edges, I knew that I needed to step in, reduce the heat, and bring them to some compassionate place of understanding.
I stepped forward and began to speak about the challenging and gut wrenchingly emotional material that we were witnessing, that we are addressing in the course; I told them that I know it is hard to face, I feel it is hard to face. I told them that you never really know what someone else is in class is going through, how we all process trauma differently, and that we just need to be a bit more forgiving of one another…and then the tears came. Through my tightened throat I pushed out a few more whispered words, “I don’t want you to fight. We have to be forgiving and give space for differences. We are in this work together.”
I grabbed a tissue and saw every face was frozen, eyes forward, looking at me. This often wildly unruly group were staring and silent, listening and feeling with me. I had their attention even though I did not want it in that moment and was already well down the path of self-loathing for this act of weakness. I managed to pull myself together, make a few self-deprecating jokes, and then told them to enjoy one another’s company for the last few minutes of class, tears still hovering on my lids, shame taking up residence as my companion.
At the bell, I stole quickly into the department office to hide. I had seen him hanging back, not leaving the room, which was unusual, especially for a Friday. I heard a knock on the door, then it opened, and he stepped boldly in. “I couldn’t leave for the weekend without you knowing what happened,” and then he told me, and he stepped forward to hug me. It was a gift of compassion. He told me that he hoped my weekend would make up for this difficult week and he left.
We often seek for control in teaching. We manage and strategize and rightfully so. But every once and a while, a moment of vulnerability opens a window. Tears had cleaned the room of that momentary conflict which lasted into the week that followed. They washed away two months of struggle and I felt a deep sense of love and connection to these students. Tears had become the transparent window on my world and had let my students see a part of me they did not know, but even more than this, tears had let me see them.
I could not have planned this, could not have created a strategy for this, and I would not repeat it. I hope never to repeat it. But for some strange and mystical reason, the tears that I shed that day, in that class, with those students, became the necessary window which has changed everything.