Teaching in a Hurting World: Between Despair and Apathy

later that night / i held an atlas in my lap / ran my fingers across the whole world / and whispered / where does it hurt? // it answered / everywhere / everywhere / everywhere. ~Warsan Shire

I was sixteen years old, sitting in my eleventh grade English class, when my teacher handed us a stack of newspapers plastered with bold headlines perched above photographs of Bosnian atrocities. We sat in silence and skimmed the articles, a heaviness stretching over us. We were the generation who never knew war—we were born at the end of Viet Nam, and we had yet to get entangled with Iraq. And here he was, thrusting our first exposure to the monstrosities of war in our naive faces.

“So what can you do?” he asked, and we sat there in silence. Nobody said a word. “Can you stop this?”  More silence. “Can you donate enough money to help every person in need? Can you go and take care of those injured? Can you meet with leaders and ask them to rethink their decisions? Really, is there anything you can do to save Bosnia?”

A wave of helplessness washed over me. I set the paper down and decided not to look at it any longer. There was nothing I could do, and so there was no need to know any more. Glancing around the classroom, I witnessed the same resignation wash over my classmates’ faces.

But then he stopped pacing and his voice softened. “You cannot save the world. You cannot stop terrible forces in action single-handedly. But you can stay aware of what is going on—that is your responsibility.  And to speak up for what you believe? That is your responsibility, too. And then, in your own corner of the world, you can promise to never commit any act so heinous. You can be kind. You can give. You can help the person next to you. You will never be able to change the world for everyone, but you can change the world for someone. And even if you only make a difference for one person, you have done a necessary job, because someday, perhaps, that person will do the same.”

I am reminded of his words during long, heavy-hearted weeks like this where too much war, too many guns, and too much hateful and derisive rhetoric compound personal loss, student hardship, and the never-ending dreary gray of early December. If we try to contend with the emotions that arise during every update, the weight of the world encases itself in the amber of our existence and laughter feels frivolous. And yet, to ignore it and bury our heads is reprehensibly irresponsible.

As educators, we are often unsure of how to navigate the intangible space between despair and apathy during difficult times.

Whenever I grapple with owning the woes of the world, I am transported back to Room 210 with Mr. Coverdale and I remember his kind words and I remember that he changed my world. He took this poor, aimless girl and catapulted her into a career to mirror his own through his kindness, laughter, and caring. And I remember his words: If you only make a difference for one person, you have done a necessary job, because someday, perhaps, that person will do the same.

And so dear colleagues, yes. We are teaching, immersed in a world that aches. We cannot shut our eyes to the terribleness that gets turned over and over in the news each night like a pile of composting leaves. We must always speak out against the heartache and injustice that plague our children’s futures, and we must listen to their fears and assuage their concerns. But we also have to teach from a place of joy and gratitude, showing our students that even in horrendous moments, there are glimpses of beauty in this world, and we need to remind them that they are often that beauty. We cannot fall into despair; nor can we be lured into apathy. Instead, we must hope that the intentional work we undertake each day makes a difference for one student. We must know that as the world grieves under its blanket of pain, our work is most important now.

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