“I’m scared to go to school tomorrow,” she said, fear in her eyes as she nervously tapped her fingers on the table that separated us. The fifth- grade student who sat in front of me is sunshine personified, and she never runs out of stories to tell. This time she wasn’t telling me a funny story from her day. Instead she spoke of the horrific “Punish a Muslim Day” that she had overheard her mother talking about on the phone the night before. All day she had carried her fear and confusion around with her at school. It was news to me, and the appalling words whirled in my mind as I sat typing them into my search window, trying to prove it was a rumor and failing miserably.
I held the space for her, listened to her, told her that she was loved and safe here. I validated her feelings and told her that being scared was a completely rational response to this hate. I desperately tried to lift her spirits. Her fear started to drift away as she eased into our after-school community of support. She didn’t see me start to sink and collapse on the inside. I felt myself going into a fog again. The headlines that have already been written for 2018 whirled around in my head. I thought of the Parkland shooting, Amelia Gomez, homeless youth, March for Our Lives, more school shootings and even more Trump tweets. And now this, April 3.
People had actually truly made a list of how to punish Muslims in 2018. A list that included hate acts ranging from punching to torture. I stared at my student, this young girl wearing a lovely hijab covered in gold stars, wrapped gently around her head. My heart ached for her because of the hate and fear that surrounds her and is directed at her simply because of her beliefs and how she looks. In the next hour, another student would hurl the word “faggot” at another student, and I would sit between them and try to make sense of why. Later, news of the death of a beloved middle school student would result in me holding a crying mother in my arms, a few tears gently falling down my face. Again, I did all I knew I could: gave them space for their anger, their fears and their sadness while trying to stay strong for them. I listened.
Later, I would go home, crawl into bed and try desperately to avoid my bubbling anxiety and feelings that were screaming and burning inside of me. I read the news often, and my eyes and ears are open to the injustices in which our society is drowning. The more I learn and lean in, the heavier I feel.
And that night at work, with the pain inching so closely to my students, I felt a deep need to shut down and disconnect.
Then I remembered a line from a book I had just read, “Braving The Wilderness” by Brené Brown. Brown states, “A wild heart can straddle the tension of staying awake to the struggle in the world and fighting for justice and peace while also cultivating its own moments of joy.” I can’t turn off and numb out. Neither can you.
Now is not the time to dive into the fog and embrace separation.
Now is not the time to dive into the fog and embrace separation. Now is the time to connect to the headlines by moving in close to the stories and the people they affect. We need to follow the example of Parkland student leaders and choose to stand for good and for the people who are vulnerable and targeted. It’s also the time to mindfully create and cherish happiness amid the chaos.
I returned to work the next afternoon, and we found a way to cultivate our moment of joy by transforming Punish a Muslim Day into Love a Muslim Day. Students signed a poster with encouraging, supportive messages to show our students who are Muslim that they are loved and safe. We made red, white, black and green bracelets and researched facts about Islam. The student from the day before returned, read the poster and shared how much it meant to her to know that we cared to acknowledge this day that many people where choosing to ignore.
It’s so incredibly easy to tune out and to declare that you can’t watch the news or to deeply acknowledge discrimination and your role in it. It’s so hard to tune in, to listen, to get scared or angry and to be vulnerable with those you love and with strangers.
Yet, change won’t happen in isolation and silence. It will happen when we choose to live in balance and walk the precarious line between tension and joy. It will happen when we commit to meeting fear and threats of violence with love and education.
Change will come when we decide to tune in and stay awake.
Faith Eakin is a teacher who is determined to empower youth through education, travel and kindness.
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