Immortal for a moment

An open letter to teachers and parents in 2021

As students return to classrooms, they offer a mirror to the adults around them. Let your presence be the sacred space that offers dignity and respect for their uniqueness

An open letter to teachers and parents in 2021

We need to recreate spaces that enable innocence and illuminating insight of the young.

Natasha Badhwar

I had a long chat with a newly-minted teenager last week. I had no idea that this suddenly tall, brooding adolescent I have known from a distance would surprise me so much with his curiosity and wisdom. What started as a casual conversation about the reopening of schools soon meandered towards topics like bullying by friends and peers and the unchecked harshness of some teachers. He asked me questions about anxiety and depression and spoke about his need for being by himself. He shared how much he learned when he was on his own and seemingly procrastinating about schoolwork. It made him feel guilty but it was a joy to discover knowledge according to his own interest and need.

“I feel so isolated when I am surrounded by people that I wonder if it will be a respite to be alone,” he said. “But I am a child. No one leaves me alone. Not even when I am sleeping.”

My young friend opened up slowly. He was testing me as we went along. I was careful to not sound alarmed. I guarded myself from offering help or intervention when he broached sensitive topics. He was clearly looking for a safe space in which he could articulate his thoughts and try to untangle conflicts. His primary need was to not be judged. When I validated his sensitivity and appreciated him for his insightfulness, he would look at me silently with a half-smile on his face.

All the things I didn’t say to him, I want to say to all the teachers returning to physical classrooms after a traumatic disruption of the last year-and-a-half. This is for everyone leading teams, including parents.

Recreate spaces of empathy and trust

No learning is going to take place unless children feel heard, seen and valued. The panic of the pandemic months has pushed back children into the background. Watching adults battle it out in survival mode through rounds of lockdowns and Covid-19 surges, has left children worrying for others as well as themselves. Our first role is to make them feel safe again.

Help restore boundaries again

Besides losing the structure of school hours, children have also been deprived of playground time and other opportunities to socialise and play. They have witnessed the work stress of their parents and extended family at close range. There have been untimely, sudden deaths. Elders around them are glued to their screens as well, often playing toxic videos on their mobile phones on full volume. There are barely any filters left between the world of adults and children.

We need to recreate spaces that enable innocence, humour and the illuminating insight of the young. Our teachers are best placed to make this start.

Pay attention to the child who is acting out his/her distress

Psychologists tell us that when a person experiences trauma, they don’t always feel the full force of its effects until after they’ve gotten safe. That is when one is finally free to process what happened. Often the hypervigilance, panic attacks, rage and nightmares start after the danger seems to have passed. The children who seem to be behaving the worst are the best guides to what the needs of the rest of the group are.

“Nobody rebels without a cause,” my teenage friend said to me. “They don’t always know how to resist without provoking the anger of those in authority.”

Respond to the here and now without offering solutions

Our challenge as adults is to hold the space for children as they experience complex emotions. Most of the time, we are tempted to intervene too fast. It is inconvenient to have to sit with these difficult, discomforting moments. Yet, admitting that our fears and anxieties are shared and real is far more reassuring than being forced to deny them.

This is the life lesson. Giving up the arrogance of certainty and accepting the vulnerability of not being entirely in control. It is okay to lay out the questions and get comfortable with confessing that we don’t know the answers. That is more effective.

Practise being kind by looking out for yourself as well

Our mourning is incomplete. Healing is always a long, drawn-out process. Healing our way on this path needs a new script from us. We need to reckon with shame, guilt and our own unacknowledged fears and resentments. Skipping this part means remaining trapped.

There are precious gifts on this uncomfortable path. We owe it to ourselves to be compassionate towards our needs.

As students return to classrooms all over the world, they offer a mirror to the adults around them. They want to make sense of their experiences. They want to reconcile. Children are believers. Let your presence be the sacred space that offers dignity and respect for their uniqueness. At first, it will seem that nothing is happening, and then one will watch joy emerge from the cracked earth and the skies above.

— The writer is a filmmaker & author.

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