Life's painful moments can offer students invaluable lesson

Sunday, Jan. 18, 2009 2:09 AM

It's the Sunday before this column is due and I'm in my apartment. The sun is shining. The apartment is clean. The only sound is that of the clothes dryer - yeah, my clothes are clean, too.

I'm waiting for my roommate's family to come get the rest of her stuff. She's been in the hospital for the past week, dying of pancreatic cancer. They've released her so that she can die at home.

I met her in the spring of 2008, when she was hired to teach a math class for the last trimester of that year. She was bouncy and all business; she had a lot of the kids who I work with, and this past summer when we began hanging out together, she told me, "I was so stressed. Those kids. ... " She didn't need to complete the sentence. I know "those kids," and I know the perverse delight they take in confounding a new teacher.

For "those kids," it's all about control - they have so little in their day-to-day lives that they meet each opportunity to gain some with frenetic intensity. Sometimes they get it - they'll take over a classroom to the extent that nothing gets taught. Every day is nothing more than crowd control.

Tomorrow, I've got a job to do. It's harder than pummeling kids with linear equations or the branches of government or the periodic table. It's getting them to acknowledge that there is real pain in the world, and I'm going through it and my friend is really going through it and all of her friends and family are going through it. It's my job to get them to look at their own pain. Tough duty, but someone's got to do it - because the blustering and bagginess and bravado that accompany those kids' behaviors are just rest stops on the road to self-destruction. It's my job to stop them from pulling over and closing their eyes - it's my job to get them to not only look at their own pain, but also be able to recognize others' - and to respond appropriately.

It's the nature of my job to share much more of my personal life with my students than it is for a traditional teacher. I can't expect my students to examine their lives - their beliefs and attitudes and behaviors and impulses and addictions, their loves and hates, their motivations and avoidances - without examining and reporting on my own.

There are, of course, pros and cons to that. On the plus side is the ability not to have to wear a mask or put up a front. The minus side is the hard part: Sometimes I don't want to examine my life. And sometimes I really don't want teenagers examining me; they can be pretty caustic. But they're usually right on.

And, actually, there's a high school committee examining the benefits and drawbacks to a recent philosophical approach to teaching (are you ready for another three-letter acronym?) called SEL, or social emotional learning. SEL is designed to incorporate life lessons and the examination of personal values and beliefs into the everyday curriculum. (I'm pretty sure good teachers everywhere already are doing this, and have been for years. We could call it GT - for good teaching.) I've only given it a cursory look and am not qualified to comment extensively about it, but I think any approach that facilitates the humanization of education must be a good thing.

Anyhow, it's been a rough couple of weeks for me, and the next couple probably are going to be rough, as well. We tend to experience death and dying more frequently the older we get, but it's not like driving a car or doing our jobs or playing a sport. It doesn't tend to get easier the longer or more you do it. Each passing has its own rawness, its own set of memories, its own lost hopes, its own punch to the solar plexus of our emotions. Time, faith and gradual acceptance are the only balm for this worst of hurts - and the knowledge that the kids I work with understand.

Greg Loheit is coordinator of The Center, a program for at-risk children at Durango High School. Reach him