School hurts. It’s a place where students get wounded. Look back into your own schooling, for example. You may remember rushed teachers who made throw-away comments or bullies who passed their pain to you. Perhaps you were maligned for not having the right accent, the right shoes, the right hair. Or, you were ostracized for living on the wrong side of town or because the work was too hard for you . . . or too easy, or for your ethnicity.
My wounding came from being different—a country girl moved to the city with braids instead of a beehive hairdo, with skirts mid-calf instead of mid-thigh mini length. I knew how to sing shaped notes but had never heard of the Rolling Stones. And I could trace my ancestors back to the old country but had never seen the Addams Family.
It took me a while to see the hidden gift of these wounds, to realize that the looks, the laughs, the assumptions that I wouldn’t fit at a party could be turned to a benefit. I didn’t see that being different was developing resilience in me and courage and creativity. And not until I became a teacher did I understand that I could turn what had hurt me into a haven for my students.
One day on hall duty at the middle school where I taught, for example, I watched the stream of students flow by. There in the hall, I could see a girl wearing a hijab, a boy with a prosthetic leg, a special education student newly included in my classroom, a girl with a missing arm, a student who towered over her classmates and one stretching to appear as tall as he could. I could see a student whose father had murdered his classmate’s dad.
These students, I realized, had my heart. All through my decades of teaching, I had reached for the students on the edges. The wounds of my differentness had caused me pain, but they had also deepened my understanding and compassion and were now helping me teach.