Like many, my high school has been engaged in antiracism training this year, and this week we had the second of a series of facilitated workshops. The first had been quite a revelation for many of the staff and I think it supported more engagement in Black History Month. The second involved a close look at our own identities and privilege. This had me off balance in a way that I could not have anticipated. I mean, I’m okay with discomfort and have been really uncomfortable, really really uncomfortable, many times this year. But, this was different. This was visceral pain unearthed from the past.
I’ll explain what happened. First, we were given a series of true or false questions and we went to breakout rooms to introduce ourselves and share. We came back to the whole group for a lesson on racial identity and then we were given a handout with boxes of identity markers such as our parents’ education, our race, gender identity, socio-economic condition, etc. We were tasked with imagining our teen self having to complete the identity categories, and then used triangles to identify for areas supported and circles for areas not supported within the school environment. From here we moved into a new breakout room with other members of an 80 person staff to share. I looked at my circles and felt a wave of panic and tears forming as I imagined sharing this history with a group of people whom I barely know.
I clicked the link to the breakout room I was assigned and saw half of the eight cameras off, everyone muted. I knew this was going to be difficult, again, but terror was with me. The previous breakout discussion stuttered with no one wanting to lead or facilitate so I did what I usually do to break the extended awkward silence and spoke first. But this time, I was ready to run. My heart was racing as I felt my body physically move back from the screen. Again, there was the awkward silence as the whole group waited for a leader to emerge. But, this time, there was no way that I was going to share my circles of struggle in high school, so I unmuted my microphone and said what I was thinking.
“I don’t know about you, but for me, this is a really big ask. I’m relatively new here and you don’t really know me. This just feels like a lot.”
Another member unmuted and turned on her camera. She agreed with me but shared in general terms and also said that she didn’t want to be specific about her circles as it might make colleagues see her differently or judge her in ways that could be damaging to her career of sense of self at work. That opened a window for me to speak more generally about the place where I spent my high school years and then then pass to another teacher whose camera was off.
He began by mentioning his openness about mental health beginning with his father’s suicide in high school, his brother’s mental illness, and the hereditary concerns he manages daily. The clock was ticking on the closing of the break out room and it made me panic for him – I wanted to sit and listen respectfully allowing him the time and space for sharing such deeply personal pain. The time ended and we closed with a thank you for sharing, but it really wasn’t enough.
The breakout rooms got me thinking about the vulnerable places we ask people to go with one another. Sharing out stories takes time and a soft place to land.