I started teaching math to kindergarteners and first graders after school twice a week. For two major reasons, I feel obligated to share that I get paid for this. First, I want to give an honest depiction: I am a starving college student looking for a relatively easy minimum wage job, not Mother Teresa. Second, by stating that I get paid, it implies it is through a professional organization and that I’m not just randomly showing up to elementary schools, giving out snacks and teaching tiny kids how to add of my own accord. That would be kind of creepy.
Some days, I take my group of students outside to do math on the playground, partially because they are kindergarteners and don’t have the attention span to be inside a classroom for two hours, and partially because I’m in college but still don’t have the attention span to be inside a classroom for two hours. On this particular day, we were doing subtraction by jumping backwards on a number line near the kickball court. (Best teacher ever!) The children were laughing and excited to be outside, and everything was great.
But, then one girl started crying — a soft, slow cry. At first, it was just sniffles and heavy breathing, but the other children began to notice, and her panic began to grow. I had no idea why she was upset. I started walking over to assess the situation, but the moment she saw me coming, she screamed and ran across the blacktop to the jungle gym on the other side of the playground. I began to run after her, leaving the rest of the class of kindergarteners standing there with no instruction other than to “do math with each other.” (Worst teacher ever.)
She was hiding in the winding tunnel slide. But she didn’t come out when I called her name. I stuck my head inside and called her again, and when she saw me, her face grew terrified, and she began to scamper backwards up the slide out of fear. It was the most scared I’d ever seen a child.
She eventually came down, (or was forced down by the other kids using the slide). And once she had taken many slow, deep breaths, she was able to tell me what was going on. She had seen her mother and younger sister walk by across the parking lot, but her mother had promised her on that day that she would be picked up before her sister. She felt forgotten. Abandoned. She felt “like nothing.”
I know many of us deal with feelings of shame and inadequacy on a very real level, but there was something about seeing the response of a seven-year-old, so vulnerable and uninhibited, that made the pain seem that much more visceral.
Shame, for something we’ve done or that has been done to us, often rears its ugly head through unhealthy addictions, resentment toward others or complete bitterness and hatred toward oneself. And it’s not like a skinned knee on a playground, where we can just slap a band-aid on it and call it a day. These wounds run so deeply to the core of our emotional health and conception of identity that we deem them too dangerous or painful to expose to others. We get really good at climbing backwards up the slide.
At least from my experience, hiding shame or sorrow doesn’t make the pain go away or alleviate it. In fact, refusing to identify or acknowledge it just compounds the problem; it breeds the loneliness that no one truly knows or understands you. The pain of abandonment or rejection, self-loathing or self-pity, needs to be brought into the light in order for the hope of healing to be seen.
What the crying kindergarten girl from my math class needed most was to be heard. Only when we can talk openly with someone about our faults or ways we’ve been hurt can we begin to tell our story in a more positive light, focusing on how things can be better. Only then can we re-conceive the suffering and creatively choose how to deal with it.
Healing requires an openness to sharing your story with others and a boldness to receiving and embracing their stories without shying away. Shame and suffering exist, and they are very real. We either choose to support and share our pain together in love, or we are left to bear it alone.
Talking is great, but Chase knows an even better way to make you feel good. Let him help you — email him at ninjaish “at” stanford “dot” edu.