The weight of the world

I know I don’t have to tell you that this year is hard. Whether you are in person, fully remote, or the dreadful hybrid, teaching this year is extremely challenging and often feels downright impossible.

I know we teachers are all doing our best to check in with our students and make sure they are ok. But do you know what your students are really dealing with right now? The 2 days before Thanksgiving, I asked all of my students, including my AP Spanish Lit class, to complete a reflection that I titled “el peso de la vida.” I explained that this time of year especially people are so focused on gratitude but rarely recognize that sometimes the weight of everything we are facing makes it hard to feel truly grateful. I also reminded them that sometimes talking to someone or just writing about your struggles can help lift some of that weight off of you.

Before asking students to write, I talked a bit about how hard it is to be a teenager and how hard this pandemic is on us. I briefly shared some of what I have been feeling, because I know that modeling vulnerability and just showing kids that it’s ok to not feel ok is so important.

So I asked them simply: ¿Qué peso cargas hoy? And then I gave them time to write in their digital notebooks. I did this last year for the first time and the results were shocking, depressing, and so enlightening. But this year, without ever meeting my students in person, I wasn’t sure if any of them would feel comfortable sharing with me. I was okay with that. I figured even if it was just 7 minutes of silence, of not having to try to focus on a lesson, that would be worth it.

But, as is often the case, my students surprised me. I’d estimate that about 3/4 of my students wrote a reflection (well above my usual quick write completion rate) and many of them shared similar feelings: loneliness, anxiety, depression, stress, fear. They shared that they want to do better in school, they know that they should complete their work, but they just don’t have the energy or the motivation to do it. They shared the struggle to focus on school while also caring for and supporting younger siblings with school. They are worried about their parents who are essential workers, they are worried about their parents who are out of work, they are worried about bills and the holidays and about letting their parents down.

Some students shared deeply personal traumas and it was honestly so hard to read. I could relate to almost every single one of them, and that made me ache so much for my students. Two students said they preferred not to share their struggles, and many others simply did not complete the reflection. Several of my students have been ill with COVID-19 during the school year. Many are dealing with the death of family members.

“I feel like my head is going to explode, like the world expects something from me and I don’t even know what I’m doing in the first place.”

Of course I already knew in general terms that my students, like all of us, we under immense amounts of stress and dealing with all sorts of personal struggles. Asking them to share those struggles with me was an opportunity to get a glimpse into the whole of what they are facing.

“Me pesa que todos mis father figures se han ido de mi vida: mi papa, mi abuelo, mi tío, mi otro tío y mi ex padrastro de 10 años. Me pesan mas cosas pero se me acabo el tiempo.”

Some stories involve personal traumas too horrific to share. Others are more mundane. Those I’ve shared here are among the ones that I referred to our school social workers. I hope they continue to share with me or begin working with one of our amazing (and extremely overworked) counselors, but of course the choice is theirs, and it’s a hard step to take for many.

“Honestamente no sé como puedo explicar como me siento. No me siento ni feliz pero ni triste. No es un sentimiento de sentirse como cualquier otro día, para más rápido la verdad no siento nada. La verdad no sé si es normal sentirse así, como si nada te alegrara pero no te sientes ni triste ni enojado.”

Several students wrote some variation of this sentence: I want to go back to being the person I was before. For some that meant being a better student, for others it meant being more open and outgoing, and for others and meant not living with so much fear and anxiety about the future. It hurt so much to read this, knowing that they are having a natural reaction to such an extremely abnormal situation. It also hurt because I feel it, too. I want to have the energy I had before. The joy for teaching I felt before. Devouring books like I did before.

I have 122 sophomores and 22 seniors. I read close to 100 reflections and wrote a response to each and every one. It took so much time, and so much emotional energy and stamina. I finished today, a full 10 days after they were turned in. During those 10 days, I took 5 days off for Thanksgiving (only completing lesson plans for the following Monday). Each time I thought about reading these reflections during my prep time, I had to resist the urge to just do something else. They can feel so overwhelming when reading more than a few at a time. I didn’t do any grading in these 10 days. It took so much willpower to just sit down to read and respond to them. But when I did, my heart swelled in pride for these amazing, wonderful, beautiful young people. Because even as their stories broke my heart, their resilience, the fact that they show up for online class every day and try their best to do what I ask, makes me feel so lucky to know them.

My students are really great. I know this even though I can’t see them and have never met them in person. Your students are great, too. And behind that smile, or mask, or black box on your screen, they are going through a lot. Even though it is really hard to read/hear it, it might be a good idea to ask what weight they are carrying today. While you’re at it, tell me: what weight are YOU carrying today?

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