Tear Down the Wall

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Before I became a teacher, I worked for six years in a mental hospital. That bit of trivia is the recurring inspiration for two rather tired jokes. My students always want to know if I’m sure that I worked there. My rejoinder is that there really isn’t much difference between my old job and my new one.

We both have a point there. One of the life lessons that I carried with me from the mental health days is that it’s an extremely fine line that separates the mentally stable from the unbalanced. While working at the hospital, I met three people who eventually took their own lives. One was a patient, one was a doctor who became a patient, and one was a staff member who frequently made fun of patients. Furthermore, we had patients who eventually became staff members and vice versa.

Another thing I learned was that adolescence is a combat zone in a war that racks up a pretty fair number of casualties. I remember my own teenage years as being fairly traumatic, and I passed through them relatively unscathed—at least in terms of major upheavals I had to cope with. Yet I can’t think about those years without a sort of inward recoiling. So many doubts and confusions and insecurities. And I had it easy.

What major upheavals? In 12 years of teaching, I’ve come face to face with the following adolescent traumas: pregnancy, abortion, attempted suicide, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, physical and sexual abuse, date abuse, extreme poverty, incest, chronic depression, eating disorders, rape, and homosexuality. Surviving such ordeals should earn any good soldier his or her combat pay.

A question I’ve come up against more than once in the faculty lounge is whether such problems are any of our business. The attitude is not as heartless as it sounds, being most typically expressed in terms of genuine concern: “Look, I’m not trained to counsel someone with their personal problems; I’m trained to teach math [or science or history or even English]. I would probably do more damage than good. If I do become aware that someone in my class has a personal problem, the best thing I can do is pass the information on to someone better equipped to deal with it—like the guidance counselor. Don’t you agree?”

No. At least, not necessarily. That mindset creates two problems. First of all, it places no significance on the fact that you are the one who became aware of the problem. In my mind, that carries a lot of weight. As a rule, teachers at the high school level are a sort of natural enemy for students; most of us can walk down a hallway and feel the antagonism. So if we become aware of a student’s innermost turmoil, it’s usually because that student wanted us to be aware. That’s a cry for help. My feeling is that I have been chosen (if not by the student, then at least by God). To try to defer that choice would be simple unwillingness to answer the call.

Second, to cut myself off from the heart of what is going on in my students’ lives would be contrary to my whole philosophy of teaching. I always tell my students at the beginning of the school year that we are going to learn about more than English in my classroom—we are going to learn about life. A bit pretentious, perhaps, but I believe it as much as I believe I should be a teacher. If I thought the most important knowledge I was imparting to my students was the identification of adverbial clauses, I’d apply for a job as a garbage collector. (I’ve heard they get paid more). Most of the truly meaningful things that happen in a classroom are only tangentially related to the subject matter being taught.

No doubt we must be careful of how involved we become with our students’ personal problems. When a kind ear creates a dependency, the interaction has become counterproductive. I learned rather ruefully in my mental hospital days that I couldn’t solve other people’s problems for them. Very often the best thing a teacher can do after discussing a problem with a student is to refer the student to the counselor or to pass the information on to someone better suited to deal with it. But in most cases, the classroom teacher is the contact point, and we need to be willing to make contact.

Two years ago, a student named Dana went home after school one day and blew her head off with a shotgun. Hysteria reigned in our hallways for the next few days, and everyone agreed how shocking and unexpected it was. Our principal handled it well. He got on the intercom and didn’t downplay the nature of her death. He said we couldn’t allow such things to happen—that we needed to talk to one another and watch out for one another and make sure every person knew that someone cared. The school brought in counselors from the local mental health center to help students deal with their grief. We all had lost someone, and it hurt.

While I grieved for Dana, I thought of Roechelle. I had taught her the previous year, and one of her writing assignments had contained suicidal overtones. I stopped her after class and told her I wanted to talk about it. After initially denying the implications, she came back to me a few days later and admitted she was thinking, almost obsessively, about killing herself. We talked. I arranged for her to see one of the school counselors, who in turn arranged for an evaluation with a psychiatrist. Roechelle ended up missing about three months of school due to an extended stay in a mental health facility.

I saw her just about a week ago. She is a checker at Wal-Mart. It is only a holiday job, and a welcome relief after a harrowing exam week at her university. She pouted because I had selected a shorter checkout lane, but she gave my arm a little squeeze when I passed by.

I like to think I helped save Roechelle. A wall exists in every single classroom of America. The wall is called Authority, and it serves a number of important functions. But it also separates us from our students, and unless we are willing to tear down bits of the Wall, or at least peek over it, we’re going to lose more Danas and Roechelles and others. Take a look.

Vol. 06, Issue 01, Page 43

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