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The Healing Touch

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At a national meeting of school teachers recently, participants were asked their views on physical contact with students--not corporal punishment, mind you, but rather the reassuring hand-on-the-shoulder contact that connects one human being, literally and figuratively, with another.

"You're careful about touching a student in any way, even an instructional way,'' said an art teacher from Montana. "You don't have any physical contact.'' A Louisiana teacher reported that, in unavoidable situations where he finds himself alone with a student, he will now "open the door wider. I sit more in the middle of the room.''

Who can blame these teachers? Given the too-frequent scenario equating accusation with guilt (especially with male teachers), it comes as no surprise that in the teaching profession, touching has become taboo. Every pat on the back has become suspect, each congratulatory squeeze to the shoulder a source of potential problems. Hugs have been demoted to handshakes. Private meetings with students have regressed to public forums. Teaching, one of the most personal and interactive of all professions, has been sterilized to a point unimaginable even a generation ago.

Working in an elementary school, I come into contact with many children in need of emotional solace. A scraped knee, a bruised ego, or a lost lunch box each brings on the same reaction: a fountain of tears. And even though the school nurse doles out bandages liberally and kindly, the act of healing is seldom complete without an additional "it'll be all right'' kind of hug. Nothing kinky. Nothing amorous. Just a quick, reassuring connection that indicates our link as two human beings, one who needs comfort and another who is willing to give it.

I'll never forget Mick, a 9-year-old student of mine whose home life was punctuated with frequent moves and even more frequent neglect. A tough kid, Mick eyed school--and teachers--warily. Even by 4th grade, he had developed a reputation as a trouble-finder. So it surprised me when Mick stayed after school one day purposely to show me the new bike that his "real dad'' had just given to him. It was handsome and tall and ready for adventure, just like its owner. Mick and I talked for a while (privately, I'll admit) about both his bike and his dad, when suddenly, rough-and-tumble Mick dissolved into tears. It seemed that Luigi, a tough 8th grader, had threatened to steal Mick's bike, and Mick was afraid that he would.

Instinctively, as the father of a son only two years older than Mick, I held him tightly. His sobs and quivers were genuine and strong. Mick was afraid. There was no way that an artificial handshake or an arms-length sentiment of comfort would suffice. Mick was 9 years old, scared, and in need of a hug. If my hug wasn't justified, what would have been?

Perhaps if I worked with high school students, who by then have learned how to suppress many of their overt emotions, I would have responded differently. But tears are tears, no matter what your age. And fear is fear, even if the dragons that bring it on change over time. I'd like to think that I'd respond the same way with a 16-year-old as with a 9-year-old, despite the "risks'' involved; I refuse to live and teach in fear that each casual or comforting touch will be misinterpreted as something it is not. Experience should count for something, and if I haven't mishandled children in my 18 years as an educator, I'm not about to start now.

I understand that the problem of physical and sexual exploitation of students is a real issue. But I also understand that such crimes are committed by the tiniest minority of colleagues who share this profession of teaching. Recently, though, the sick few who choose to abuse and demean their students have set the tone for the rest of us: Reach out...but don't touch. In adopting this new philosophy, our profession has quietly but surely taken a step backward. Like Mick, we are afraid of an enemy bigger and stronger than we are: the "enemy'' of self-doubt and false accusation.

My heart goes out to that art teacher from Montana who feels the need to expose his students to the beauty of art from a far and safe distance. I feel sorry for that Louisiana educator who believes it is prudent to have a potential witness nearby when discussing a student's personal problem. And I feel worse for the millions of kids who are growing to learn, through our example, that emotions are bad and physical contact is inappropriate unless it is some circumspect handshake. In years to come, today's kids will surely pass on this unspoken message to their own children.

Back to Mick: After drying his tears with my shirt cuff, we devised a plan that would soothe Mick's anxiety about Luigi's avaricious desires. Mick would bring his bike into our classroom and keep a watchful eye on it until the bike no longer looked new or good enough to steal--about three days! When Mick finally pedaled his treasured bike out of our classroom for the last time, he seemed confident and safe.

"How far one little candle throws its beam,'' I thought, recalling the words of writer John Cheever, "so shines a good deed in a naughty world.''

Mick, you deserved this.

How long will we as educators allow ourselves to be suspects when, in fact, most of us are victims? Victims of a spate of accusations about our personal behavior and professional ethics that has given both parents and students unwarranted fears about what goes on in a classroom. Individually and collectively, we must state unequivocally that our goal is to instruct, not abuse, children. Unless we do so, we may lose one of the last and greatest elements of our profession that has guided it since its inception: trust.

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