March 9, 2020
WE ALL NEED TO START BREATHING
“It’s the type of love that says ‘I believe in you.’ It’s the type of love that says, ‘You don’t have to be like this.’ Not the love that’s like ‘I just want to hug you.’ It’s the love that’s like, ‘You’re going to be better! And I’m going to stand here until you get better. I’m not going anywhere. That’s how much I love you. I’m not going on to buses. I’m not going to lunch. I’m not. I’m going to stand here and wait for you to do better and be better because I love you.'” Mauri Melander Friestleben — about loving students
Love them first. This was the directive at Lucy Laney at Cleveland Park Community School in North Minneapolis under Ms. Friestleben’s leadership. “What if we all did that?” she asks us in the Kare11 documentary Love Them First.
And I ask the same question. Whether we are their teachers and educators, their care-givers, their probation officers, the police driving through a neighborhood full of youngsters who live in homemade war zones, what if our first response to children and youth was to breathe deeply and love them first?
How would we need to “see” these young ones regardless of their exterior behaviors?
How would we need to view ourselves in order not to have their negative or disrespectful behaviors trigger our self-defense system?
I have been providing support services to several teachers in some notoriously dis-regulated third grade classrooms. The goal is to re-create the environments of these classrooms into healthy, thriving learning environments. I have been teaching the teachers the necessity of shifting their culturally inherited punitive mindset to a mind that is set on always honoring the dignity and value of each child. I teach that while we must hold firmly to the expectations and boundaries that provide the structure in which we can all be together in a good way, we must also support and nurture our students at all times. That means we support them in taking responsibility and making amends for harm they have caused as well as supporting them through their very real crisis and stresses.
It always sounds so good in theory. The teachers never disagree with me. But then, here I am in this third grade classroom early on a Monday morning to facilitate a discussion Circle with the students. After 15 minutes and three attempts to get them to come and sit down quietly in Circle, we finally succeeded and were able to begin. They did well listening to each other without interruption or side-comments or total disregard for what was happening for about 10 minutes. Then it slowly began to unravel so I cut to the end and closed the Circle.
I watched how the teacher, who is young and only a few years into her career, handled the constant inattention and commotion. She uses affirmations, encouragements, call & response, all good things to settle them, redirect them, provide positive affirmation to those who are trying to pay attention and learn. I also see that she is stressed. I am surprised that she hasn’t just blown up!
But I also noticed that there did not seem to be an emotional connection between the teacher and the students. It seems on the surface that she is regarded as just another tiresome adult who they have to endure. Across the city at another school with another equally chaotic third grade, I sense a similar attitude.
I’ve sat with a Circle of teachers who have actually cried because they are so stressed and unhappy and finding it impossible to “reach” these children, none-the-less teach them.
So how does someone like Ms. Friesleben inspire an entire staff to so thoroughly love their students that it transforms an entire school? How is their love different? How come they are effective and the classes I’m observing never seem to be out of chaos for more than a few moments at a time?
I believe it begins with us. Do we love ourselves? Do we see the light within us? Are we gentle and compassionate with ourselves, while also holding ourselves accountable to make right any mistakes we’ve made or harm that we have caused? In other words, are we doing our own work so that we are able to receive love, and allow love to flow through us to others? “Love your neighbor (others) as yourself” is a tenet of most spiritual traditions/practices. So, it begs the question, how can we fully and freely love another if we don’t love ourselves? How can our self-defenses not be triggered when we are treated disrespectfully if we have not done this work within us?
And then, can we truly see the divine light within each of our students? Do we look deeply into them and see what they’re not saying? Do we believe in them? I mean, not just cliches we might parrot — but really believe in their inherent worth and goodness, in their potential?
Something else that Ms. Friesleben says:
“There is a level of investment that comes at a cost. Because when you choose to press into that, you do get great outcomes from kids, you do. But [to do that] you also [must] choose to press into the pain. And for some people it’s too much. But it’s worth the cost because the return on your investment is pretty powerful.”
They are worth the cost. So, let’s all take some deep breaths and remember that even as we are surrounded by the air we breathe… we are surrounded by Love. It is the Breath of Life — the breath of the Universe, the breath of the Creator. It’s the type of love that says, I believe in you. It’s the type of love that says you are worthy of love, you are valuable, and you have something important to give to the world.
“No child should feel locked into a box that they can’t fight their way out of. It is our job as grown ups to find the keys and open them up and open the box and say “Fly!” “Breathe!” “Live!” “You will NOT be confined to a box. Not on MY watch!” Mauri Melander Friestleben