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  • Jan Flynn

A Lab For Compassion

As I’ve said before, my day job is at a middle school. I have a low threshold of boredom, and in this job it’s not a problem. If you are a writer who is feeling bereft of material, I suggest you find a way to spend some time in middle school. You can’t beat it for intensity. Even high school, the four years that beget endless songs and nostalgia, can’t touch middle school for day-to-day and minute-to-minute drama.

There’s a reason there are very few 20 year reunions for seventh grade. It’s not a time that many people remember with fondness. The tween years are like no other stage in life. This the time that transforms excitable, shrill-voiced little kids into adult simulacra with world-weary expressions and razor-sharp wits. Some of the sixth graders who barely come up to my elbow will have several inches and many pounds on me by the time they’re halfway through eighth grade. If only on a physical level, it’s a lot for them to go through.

Add to that the emotional and hormonal restructuring taking place in each kid, plus intense social pressure exacerbated by dawning self-awareness colliding with a need to belong. Now herd twenty five individuals on this spectrum  into a room, ask them to sit still, and teach them how to write an essay or balance an equation.

This explains my deep admiration for the best middle school teachers. Their work can be compared to steering a leaky ship safely into port every day through a storm and with a crew on the verge of mutiny. They maintain a balance of wisdom and humor, caring and detachment, expectation and forgiveness. They calmly deflect antics that would make other perfectly reasonable adults foam at the mouth. Yet they do not tolerate disrespect or outright defiance. They know their students need firm boundaries to push against.

Most importantly, they have compassion. Lots and lots of compassion. Especially for the students for whom it’s not so easy to feel much warmth or connection. The surly, withdrawn kid with averted eyes who responds to questions with a shrug of the shoulders. The loud kid whose need for attention from his peers is so desperate that he can barely refrain from disrupting class long enough to learn anything. The hostile eye-rolling of a pre-adolescent who communicates her disdain at every opportunity. The kid who is a pariah, somehow socially repellant.

There are kids like this in every class, every year, and I’m sure this is true in every school. And these are the kids, as hard as they are to reach, who need the most understanding and attention, despite their being the least rewarding. For these kids — for many, many kids — the already tough job of growing up is a heartbreaking battle due to circumstances outside their control. Even in our outwardly idyllic little town with its well-funded and highly regarded schools, we see students every day who are coping with poverty, abuse, neglect, the death of a parent or a sibling, or some level of emotional abandonment by adults who are preoccupied with crippling problems of their own.

There is a very human tendency to distance oneself from kids like this, to consign them to the category of damaged goods. It’s even more tempting to dish out harsh judgement toward their parents. Who wouldn’t want to be insulated from regarding these kids’ pain as our own?

But that’s precisely what compassion entails: feeling with. Not pity, which is only contempt in masquerade. And not savior syndrome either. Real compassion acknowledges that while we may be very limited in our ability to alleviate another’s suffering,  we’re called on to do what we can.

In the middle school setting, demonstrating compassion can look very insignificant. It can mean finding a safe joke to share with a class clown on the playground, or taking an interest in the shy kid’s artwork, or admiring the most modest achievement of a struggling student. Very often, it means listening. Not reacting; not prescribing; not fixing. Just listening. Fully and deeply, even if only for a few minutes at a time.

It’s much harder than it sounds. It almost never yields immediate, visible results. But you just never know what your undivided, undemanding, safe attention might mean to a young person who has too much to face every day.

The girls’ P.E. teacher at our school shared a story just this week, of a student she’d had several years ago. A quiet girl, not the popular type, but one who had mustered the courage to join the basketball team. The teacher got to know the student pretty well, or so she thought. Being a good teacher and coach, she encouraged the girl and did what she could to make her feel welcome. The teacher didn’t see this as any big deal; she does as much, I’m sure, for all of her students and players.

So it brought her to tears to relate that, years later, this girl — now a young woman, happy and successfully launched in life —  came back to visit the teacher and to let her know that it was her calm, caring presence that had formed a lifeline. It was the sole reason, the young woman said, that she hadn’t followed through, back in seventh grade, on her plan to kill herself.

Like I said, you just never know.

As always, your comments are encouraged and appreciated.

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