Souls on Fire:
Schooling, Trauma, and the Covid 19 Pandemic
I have been teaching for 13 years in a variety of schools in Detroit and the surrounding neighborhoods. In the years leading up to this pandemic, I had noticed my students having an increasingly difficult time dealing with life. The school that I currently work at is in a suburb just outside of Detroit’s east side, and is filled with working class and lower middle-class families. The racial demographics are about 50/50 black and white.
Last year, we had a student commit suicide, and we have had many other students attempting suicide and/or spending time in psychiatric facilities over the last couple of years. Many students are boiling over with trauma and are struggling to function through the day to day. Some of these are high achieving students with many friends. Others can’t achieve anything because they are just barely keeping their head above water. We’ve begun talking a lot about trauma-informed instruction.
Are kids today experiencing more traumatic events than children of the past?
I don’t believe so.
Years ago, I read a book by Amy Chua titled World on Fire. In this book, she examined countries which had experienced genocide level revolutions. She stated that these were all countries in which an ethnic minority was ruling over an ethnic majority. However, this alone did not lead to the revolution. Instead, what happened was the ethnic minorities in power began a relationship with the United States. When they did this, the U.S. brought two things to their countries — a free market economy and the idea of democracy (namely that people deserve a voice in their government). The free market economy benefited greatly the elite, ruling minority. The ethnic majority watched this happening while they still suffered in poverty. At the same time, they were grabbing hold of this other idea that the people deserve a voice in how they are ruled. These two ideas together sparked the masses to boil over in their anger and that led to genocide.
I have thought about her thesis in regards to the youth of today. I believe that the youth in the past experienced just as much, if not more trauma as the youth of today. However, they were socialized to keep quiet about their trauma — that it was a personal shame they had to carry, and it should never be spoken of out loud — especially not to anyone outside the family. Conversely, the youth of today have gotten the idea that they deserve a voice, and that the trauma they have experienced is trauma. My friend who is a counselor at the school says kids he doesn’t know at all, will walk in and say, “Can I tell you about when I was sexually assaulted when I was 7?” They just come right out with it immediately. They are not willing to carry it in their little souls any longer, and it is spilling out all over the place. They are shouting from the rooftops; they are screaming to be seen and heard; they will not keep the family secrets in silence like kids of the past. They will talk and heal, or they will die.
This was the state of my students this year before the pandemic hit.
Every day, students were dragging themselves into school full of anxiety. Every day, it took an act of sheer will and determination for them to show up, soul on fire, put the mask on (metaphoric mask, not the Covid mask), and walk through the world that is high school right now. Every day students would come to my class just to sit by me because I made them feel calmer, and they felt they could talk to me about how they were truly feeling. I bought multiple students protection stones, just as a symbol to remember they were not alone. The year felt heavy with the pain my students walked with, and I felt humbled and grateful to be able to be there as a vessel for their stories.
When we first heard about Coronavirus, in January, we were being told people in the United States didn’t really have to worry about it. Soon, we would know differently, as everything began shutting down. First universities, then sports, then major events, and finally, public schools.
I thought about all the spiritual teachers who explained that we are made in the “image of our creator” means that we are creators. There is a link between our mental and emotional state and our physical bodies. Countless studies have shown how we can literally make ourselves sick. Our thoughts are creative — both individually and collectively. I thought about the anxiety in the world we live in, the anxiety I had been feeling, the anxiety of my students — Had we created this virus with our collective subconscious? Were our psyches forcing us to take a time-out of the lives we’ve been struggling to keep up with, forcing us to go home and deal with ourselves.
Regardless of what you believe, it is worthwhile to ponder how we might organize our lives in some way that doesn’t lead to so much anxiety. There is something deeply satisfying about moving with one’s own natural rhythms, rather than according to a schedule uniform to everyone. There is something kind about deciding what is most important and facilitating student learning of these things, rather than overloading them with busy work. There is some love and respect shown in calling home with the willingness to address the individual needs of each household at this time of crisis.
What elements of this mentality can we take back into the physical space of school when we return, so that our souls don’t feel on fire everyday. Can we value peace and joy and wholeness over business, performance, and competition?