Chapter Thirty Eight: Student Teacher Interlude
I am going to offer you a window into the hidden world of healing for a broken soul. The process of healing can bring with it a flurry of dreams. Often this is the place pieces of my soul are able to express impossible emotions free of accusation, fear, and threats. Like all of us whose sleep filled dreams can take on the expression of our innermost struggles and fears, so too with those who are in the process of restoration.
Contained in this dream was a challenge and request for help to all those teachers, counselors, principles, and school staff who spend so much of their life around children. More often than not you will be the only point of reference for children raised in worlds like my own. You have an opportunity to make a difference that is bigger than you know. To help you understand that, I let the student in my soul share their words with you now.
In the dream, I was transported back in time where I was sitting in a classroom like so many of the thousands I have sat in over the years of my life. There were grainy white chairs with laminated desks attached. They were lined up in rows seven deep by eight wide. There were students peppered across the class; they all looked to be around thirteen years old. I was sitting in the back right corner in order to keep my back to the wall and remain confident that no one can sneak up on me.
Sitting just a few chairs ahead of me was Shane. He was one of my better friends, and he and I had been in Boy Scouts together for a few years. He was wearing his uniform, tucked in at the waist; PACK 72 in white letters on a red background was pressed onto his shoulder. P.P.C was stitched onto the handkerchief he wore around his collar. I saw all over the room the rest of my pack mates, each one dressed in his uniform and looking as if we were just about to head out for another camping trip or Jamboree.
The class began. Our regular teacher was out for the day and had left a lesson plan for the substitute to go over. Though the material was standard and I’d heard it hundreds of times, the day was about to be very different. The woman began to teach us at the front of the room. She picked up her dry erase marker and wrote her name on the board. My mind drifted into a place that was no longer in the present. Noises turned to sounds, which inevitably combined into those words and phrases I didn’t want to hear. “Take out your vocab books and turn to page twenty-three,” yet another moment of mundane misery to mutilate my mind.
The students dutifully obeyed her command as I looked up at the ceiling and allowed the memories to draw me into dissociative dreams. Minutes passed, and the droning went on as I wondered the halls of hell within my charred soul. My stupor was suddenly silenced when the teacher called out to me.
“Nate, will you please use ‘persuasion’ for us in a sentence?”
I ground the gears of my mind to a halt and prepared to regurgitate the indoctrinating bile that was written on page twenty-three. I waited. She watched. I waited some more. My classmates grew confused and one, then two, then by threes and fours they began to turn in my direction.
“Nate, will you please use ‘persuasion’ for us in a sentence like the one on page twenty-three.”
I watched her and looked beyond the board at the end of the room, and into a moment in time she couldn’t see. I faded back into a real life memory.
The memory transported me to a time and place far away. I saw Shane and myself setting out on a hiking trail in The Rocky Mountains. We had backpacks loaded down with changes of socks, tents, sleeping bags, food, and water. My pack mates were just about to set off as well; Josh was bent over on the tailgate of his dad’s fire-engine red Ford Ranger, and he was picking a chunk of gravel out from behind his heel. Matt with his thick glasses and unbelievable intellect was making mental calculations that would take him twenty minutes to articulate. Jeff wasn’t sure what was taking so long, but he was joking with one of the other guys about something I couldn’t hear.
I let the memory accelerate through time until we were a mile down the trail and stopped for a four-minute rest. Snacks were pulled out of zippered pockets. They peeled through plastic seals revealing caloric treasures waiting inside. I was watching my pack mates as in just a few months I would be leading them on a fifty-mile trip through the backcountry of New Mexico’s mountains. I was observing each of them carefully, examining how they managed their time, the weight on their shoulders, and the poles in their hands. I was making small calculations on where they should be in my line, on who would be able to help share the loads, and who would carry the map on each section of the trail.
Other kids’ dads were colluding in the corner of the trail a few yards away, each of them trying hard to hide just how out of breath they were. For a rare moment, I was happy. I could see the trail would take me to a place I desperately wanted to go, where lush grassy meadows would envelop me in sleep and upon sunrise, the morning birds would wake me.
I did not want to come back down the trail we came on to the torment of what waited at my home or in classrooms like this one. I knew I wouldn’t stay out here forever, where Shane, Jeff, and I were still friends, and they wouldn’t make fun of me behind my back like all the other kids. My God, how I wanted them to like me and think of me as their best friend instead of their cruel joke. It was shallow at best, but the rivers of my soul ran deep, and even just a few inches of appreciation and friendship could carry me for miles.
The kids in my class and in my pack didn’t know what waited for me when I walked in the door many miles away. They didn’t know the sound of papa’s pedophilic Family members. They didn’t have to feel the plunge of a dagger as it worked its way past skin, fat, tendons, and bone. They wouldn’t see the scabs that would come from my razor’s edge as it tortuously tempted me to feel something other than apathy and indifference.
The memory stopped and I was back in the classroom.
“Nate, will you please use ‘persuasion’ for us in a sentence; there is an example on page 23 in your vocab book.”
By now the classes attention was entirely fixed on me. I looked at the teacher again and told her my story of the hike. I told her about the place I’d rather be, the mountains of meadows, and the sound of the creek forty feet from my tent. I told her about the smell of vanilla pinesap oozing from a tree I buried my nose in, and the whispers of hope wafting over my withered wounds. I told her of the screams in the night, and of the millions of tears I had cried.
I answered her with a boldness that frightened many sitting nearby.
“I don’t want to tell you the sentence from page twenty-three. I want you to listen and care about me. I want to matter more than this stupid book. I am not a question waiting to be answered; I’m not a score on your test. I am a thirteen-year-old boy who has survived incest. I want to feel something other than this, but I don’t know what to do except crawl into a ball so most people won’t find me.
No mom is waiting for me back home. She went and moved far away where Guests are attended to but children are forgotten and used as cheap labor instead. I want to eat food baked with care instead of this crap; my robot dad packed my lunch with this morning. But don’t worry, miss substitute teacher, I’ll soon be out of your hair, and you can run on to someone else; it’s not like you care. Last night, I held a knife to my chest, wishing I could just plunge it in, but don’t worry, the programming against premature suicide is thoroughly locked in.”
The class once silent and motionless began to murmur. Seats creaked as students adjusted their bodies with the weight of what I’d just shared. The accusations exploded from my chest about the failure of the teachers who should have done something. I screamed them at the teacher, demanding a response.
“Why didn’t you ask me where the bruises came from, the bloody noses and scars? Why didn’t you stop them from tearing me apart? Where is the person who gives a crap about the kid sitting in front of you two hundred and eighty days in the year? When will I matter more than this silly book, I ask you and demand that you tell me, you apathetic crook!? I am not an answer, a statistic, or a score; I am a child who was ruined by monsters in this world of deceit. I carry the burdens of a thousand men’s shoulders. Where is the person who will share my crushing load? I’ve yet to meet them in one of these rooms, and I know it’s not the woman standing in front of me now. You’ll forget all about me in two days time when you have to substitute for another classroom that’s bigger than mine.
Go ahead and read for us whatever’s in this stupid book; it doesn’t matter anyway; it never really does. I will wake up from this hell someday where you won’t be, where there are people who love and care about me. Until that time, I am persuaded that none of this counts. Not the grade you’ll give me or the ink on the board. You’ll wipe it away at the end of today, just like this piece of my soul you’ll throw in the trash as you look past my bleeding heart and on to the next. Goodbye, miss substitute teacher, I’ll go ahead and dig in the rubbish bin once you’ve moved on.”
The teacher began to justify like they always do. She muttered on about state requirements, licensure, and aptitude scores, which don’t mean crap. Federal funding. licensure hours, and money is all that matters, and a place where children are indoctrinated with lies to make sure they become good worker bees who love their servitude and defend it with venom. She could tell the classroom was getting angry as others students began to agree.
The students’ shouts ring out as the wounded ones are given a voice.
“Why is it you care about these vocab words more than you care about me? Why don’t we matter more than you say? Why don’t you give us the time of day?”
She was writing on the whiteboard a bunch of words, value charts, and statistics to prove her clinically approved method. Tears were pooling in the bottom of my eyes as she tried to get the classroom back on her side. She demanded we each raise our hands if we want to speak, so thirty hands shot up, and she looked so bleak. Just at this moment, my teacher walked in.
He had been hiding in the corner in the back of the room. He stepped to the teacher and said, “Class dismissed.” We found our ways back to the halls where the bullies await, the jabs about my body, the kicks at my heels with their cool kids’ uniform bought at the mall of tomorrow’s trends.
The next morning found me making my way back into the room. My teacher walked up to me but didn’t say a word. He taped a piece of paper on the wall by my desk. He looked at me for the first time in nearly a year and saw the shattered soul who’d been there all along. He nodded to the paper and headed back to his desk.
The paper had his handwriting on it, and this is what it said:
To: Nate Reynolds
“I present this letter to you for reminding us what we need to do. You told us a story, and it had no name. You shared a shard of your soul once written with blood. Nate, you persuaded a tired teacher that his job was not done. In a thousand words or less, you told the schools what we really must do: abandon the broad ways of teaching we’ve been forced into. Share our lives with our students and help them through life, so that we might equip them to survive the madness at night, and let them remember that there is still hope, even if it means the answers are not going to be on vocab page number twenty-three.”
I looked at the paper and began to cry an ocean of emotions always held inside. I let the tears fall wherever they may because for a single moment in time, the burden was not mine alone. The endless agony crushing my soul was given its first reprieve. I had been seen, maybe even understood, for the first time in too many years. It was not the end of the horrors; I had many more to go. But it gave me the opportunity to remember why I was still alive.
I knew as I wrote down that dream and poured over my journals from those years those words could be written. I knew there would come a day when I would be able to share this with a teacher and save a student’s life. On that day I would know it was all worth it: the scabs on my arms, the beatings, and the bruises. The slices of sorrow, which slid through my soul, could find healing and wholeness I’d never known. I am not sorry for what I’ve been through; I’m only sorry I didn’t say so sooner. When you see the student hiding in the back of the room, causing a ruckus or keeping you from finishing your plan, remember this story, and maybe you can save someone’s future from the bottom of a bottle, an abuser’s lust, or from their mother’s absence. You might just be the one who reminded a broken human being they mattered more than the next test.