“The soul feels its worth because we appear. It has to mean that.” So go the words of Father Greg Boyle, Jesuit priest and founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. Boyle’s thirty years worth of work helping gang members have made him an expert on heartbreak, sorrow, struggle, and joy.
How could the book Tattoo on the Heart have any relevance for me, a suburban elementary school teacher? Simple. My students are also experts on heartbreak, sorrow, struggle and joy. They are only a few years younger than the young men and women with whom Fr. Greg works. Their moms abandon them. Their dads are incarcerated. Their parents are divorced, and they exhaustingly alternate nights sleeping in each household. (ready? pack up your prized possessions and settle into a different home…..comfy? time’s up! do it again!! name one adult who would put up with such demands!!)
“You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly-behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.” Some of my students freak out – lie incessantly – graffiti the bathrooms – disrespect adults – steal – soil themselves – threaten suicide – simply because their burdens are more than they can bear. That kind of sorrow cannot be contained within the confines of an eight year old’s body – it is too great. And when it comes out, that sorrow looks like rage. It looks like surliness. It looks like disrespect.
Does that mean we allow our students to destroy property, instigate fights, disrespect teachers? Of course not. It means that we acknowledge that these students come by this rage, this sorrow, this unrest….they come by it honestly. We stand with them. We cry for them, in the bathroom or in the car – where nobody can see us. Then we wipe our tears, straighten our name badges, and resume our posts, with unwavering high expectations for our charges.
We teach them how to recognize and name their feelings, and how to appropriately channel those feelings. We teach them about ambivalence – that everyone feels more than one way, all….the…..time. As we teach vocabulary, comprehension, and higher-order thinking skills, what we REALLY want our students to know is just as Fr. Greg puts it: “You are so much more than the worst thing you’ve ever done.”