A few days of teaching scared kids

So, the first two days back at school in Watertown after the marathon bombing and terrorist search/killing/capture have gone okay. Apparently there was a pretty bad fight in the cafeteria at lunch yesterday, which I just found out about today. Certainly this was not a good experience for students who had just recently witnessed so much police activity and gunshots and explosions — now another bit of violence is right inside the school. I also imagine that stress from the week’s events was probably part of the reason that it occurred in the first place, although I don’t personally know the students involved and shouldn’t speculate.

My very first student interaction of the day was with a freshman girl — let’s call her Minnie — who usually comes to school early and chats with me a little bit. She is extremely sweet and hard-working, and I know she cares a lot about school and her family. It turns out that her father is a police officer who was part of the gunfight in which the older bombing suspect was killed. Again, this is the very first student conversation I had. Usually, I must admit, I shuffle around the room getting things ready, but of course I put my white-board marker down to listen to her. She told me about the insane hours that her father had spent not that far from home, and excitedly explained how the Bruins had signed a hat for him and how many people had been treating him like a celebrity. She was rattled but clearly saw her father as a hero.

In each class yesterday (aka the first day back), I started off by asking each student to share both a ‘brag’ and a ‘nag,’ which I have blatantly ripped off from some wonderful dancing friends of mine. I gave basic examples that didn’t reference the weeks event, because I wanted to wait to see whether they would, and if so, what they would say. I allowed students to say only one or the other, but nobody could totally pass, even if they just said ‘I got a lot of sleep’ or ‘my dad baked brownies.’ The second you let somebody pass, suddenly nobody wants to share anything.

In my very first class, a rather precocious freshman said that the thing ‘nagging’ him was that all these terrible things had lumped up in the same week — the bombing, gunfights in town, Texas explosions, some more miners were apparently trapped, Denver gunshots, et cetera. A few students in addition to Minnie shared that their parents were police officers who were called into action in Watertown. Many said that the thing that ‘nagged’ them was that the lock-down kept them from enjoying the nicest day on break or going to New Hampshire for the weekend. I was surprised by the number of students whose families had planned weekend trips to New Hampshire and Maine.

After the initial check-in, I opened the class up to a general discussion of what had happened. Again, I wanted the kids to talk to what they wanted/needed to talk about. I made a point of saying that, and also telling them that we didn’t need to talk about anything if they felt that they didn’t need to, or if it was too difficult.

My students were great. They expressed sympathy for the people who were hurt. Generally, they just swapped stories and asked each other questions about what they had seen. It seemed like they had been scared. Which makes a whole lot of sense. Many of them discussed hearing gunshots and explosions. One boy had heard the bombs explode at the marathons. One boy said that there was still a bullet in his house. Many live very close to where the second brother was found hiding in the boat, and some saw what was happening. Some had connections to people killed at the marathon and to the younger brother. Besides the most violent events, many clearly were very affected by the general situation. One girl told me she cried because she was worried about her grandmother who lived in the most closed off part of town. Another told me she had shut and locked her windows at night in worry.

In leading the conversation, I tried not to do too much besides add factual information and get students to answer each others’ questions. I said “thank you for sharing” about a thousand times.

One thing that is interesting about the whole situation is that people in the world are talking about how these terrorists happened to be Muslim. Some ignorant people have been doing terrible things with these facts. The really cool thing about Watertown is that it is incredibly diverse. We have a large number of students who have come from Armenia (lots of kids from Armenia), Lebanon, Russia, Jordan, Iran, and other students from Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, and so forth. Many girls, some recent immigrants and some who in every other way fit the American teenage girl norm, cover their hair or wear more full traditional dress.

The religion of the bombers came up only three times. The first time, a student said that there were non-Watertown affiliated strangers who had said angry, cruel things to some Muslim Watertown students on their twitter pages. My kids didn’t understand this. In another class, I mentioned that I was proud of the fact that students at my school had been so cool about the issue, and one of my students was so confused that people wouldn’t be. He said “these are just two horrible people — why would anybody think that’s what all Muslims or all Russians are like?” What a freaking awesome kid.

The last Muslim-related comment was from a whip-smart Muslim girl, who covers her hair (but once let me see it!). I noted that she had been very quiet in class, which was unlike her, especially when political sorts of things come up. She told me that everyone at school was fine, but that the event had been difficult on the Muslim community at large. I hate that. Then again, she was giggling with her pals about some silly youtube video they had seen for quite some time. I think she’ll be okay, though I’m definitely going to check in on her.

Oh! I also gave my students the opportunity to write letters to the local police officers. I stressed that they didn’t need to, and that I wouldn’t think any less of them if they didn’t want to. I think about 2/3 of my students wrote letters. Minnie offered to give them to her dad the next day to bring into the station. I took her up on the offer — I think she was proud to be able to do that.

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Today, Tuesday, kids seemed better. They still talked about it. In the beginning of my classes, I made sure to remind them that they could still go see a guidance counselor if they needed to at any time, and if they felt that anything we were doing in class was beyond them right now, to let me know. When I was one on one with various students, I made sure to ask them how they were feeling. Again — they’re still skittish, but I think they’re nicely on their way to feeling settled again, even if this ‘settled’ feeling is different than before.

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One comment

  1. Mr. Arbit

    Major props. To your students, to you for how you handled it, for writing so candidly about the whole thing.

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