I’m finally on Spring Break, and while it has been glorious and relaxing (and full of Target trips!) thus far, I cannot for the life of me get an interaction I had with a student out of my head.
The moment plays out whenever I have a quiet moment. When I’m brushing my teeth, it appears before me like a little vignette on my bathroom counter. When I’m applying my mascara, the moment dances around my makeup brushes. When I lay my head down to get more than five hours of sleep for the first time in months, the moment jumps all over the bed.
It went like this: we were debriefing the movie McFarland, USA on Friday. Just a few questions to make sure that the students had paid at least an iota of attention during the movie. So, I asked, “Did Jim White have to go pick in the fields with his team?”
“Nooooo,” my class answered obediently.
“Nope, he didn’t,” I said. Then, I put on my best Wise Teacher voice so that they knew some big question was coming. “Now, will Coach White ever know exactly what it’s like to live that sort of life?” I asked. I was looking for my students to tell me that while the coach may not ever truly know, it was the trying to understand as best he could that made him an ally.
Instead, one of my students said, “I don’t know, but I hated living that life.”
I stopped mid-step. I pivoted around like an idiotic movie villain and said, “wait, what?”
“I did that. When I lived in California, my family and I picked strawberries,” he replied simply. “It hurts. Like, a lot.”
I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there, mouth opening and closing like some dying guppy, fumbling for the right thing to say. In nanoseconds I ran through these options:
Option A: “I’m so sorry!” Nope, Option A sucks because I don’t want him to think that picking strawberries is some sort of thing to be sorry about. Many people work in the fields, and that is how they provide for their families. Is it hard? Yeah. Is it something to pity? No effin’ way.
Option B: “Wow…” Uh, no. He didn’t tell me that he was born with an extra four legs, for crying out loud.
Option C: “Thank you for sharing that.” Who the hell do I think I am, Oprah? Dr. Phil? Also, is this some sort of therapy session?
Option D: “Dude, that sucks.” Aaaand, I apparently lack any sort of empathy or compassion.
Option E: “My dad did that, too!” I mean, it’s true. But it’s not my place to try and top his experience with a story of mine. All that would do is take away from his story. Nope.
Option F: “Really? That sounds rough, George Clooney” (not his real name, obviously. But I feel like he would have known what to say. He’s suave like that). Well. It’s not awful and now he’s staring at me so…
I went with Option F. Even coming out my own mouth it sounded dry and bland. Like toast. I could have given him a Funfetti cupcake answer; sweet, satisfying, and encouraging. And instead I gave him toast. After I said it, George simply nodded and shrugged his small shoulders.
Suddenly, I could see him out in those fields, those tiny little shoulders all hunched over, sweat dripping down his brow, his legs shaking from stooping. I felt tears building up, but the moment was gone and I would have been calling even more attention to this child’s less than pleasant memories.
Here’s the thing. I am usually really good when these sorts of comments or questions come up. I’ve navigated through a lot of uncomfortable seas with coworkers, parents, friends, and even family members. “Ease with discomfort/awkward moments,” should be on my resume. I’m not bragging; I have just dealt with a lot of racist/prejudiced/misogynist/stereotypical/white privilege/what fragility shit in my life, and I’m pretty used to it. Not much phases me. My Mocha Armor is pretty damn strong.
I just never expected a student of mine to have had that experience. When he said that he’d been out there, I wanted to know more. I wanted to comfort him. I wanted to punch whatever asshole let a child work in those conditions for 10 hours. I wanted to tell him he was brave for sharing that in front of other children who were about to board cruise ships for Spring Break and would never have to understand.
Ugh. I wanted to do so much. But I didn’t. I should have.
As that vignette plays in front of me, I still don’t know what to do. Do I tell him something better when we get back on Monday? Do I just act as if nothing happened? Do I get him a pony? I just know that it could have gone so much better than it did. George opened up and as I selfishly wracked my brain for just the right thing to say, an opportunity to really connect closed on us. An opportunity for my other students to see a model of a compassionate, empathetic response was missed.
This was not my best moment. And all I want to do is make it better. George deserves something better.