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Re-thinking Skills for Student Success

Every Monday night, I leave class, like most of us, with a million thoughts. When I applied to participate in the class, I never imagined that memories I had forgotten about, would flood my mind when our class talks about certain things, or when we look at images and hear stories. We talk about making things “visible” for our students and the young people we work with, and I can see that that is happening for me as well.

Also, I thought of all of this today as I was listening to a podcast from “This American Life”, about what children need to succeed in life/school etc. There is an interview with author Paul Tough who wrote “What Children Need to Succeed.” The children he is mostly focusing on is children that live in poverty. A guest comes on the show and elaborates on flight or fight response, referencing executive functioning in similar ways as our guest last night. I think it’s worth listening to. The podcast is an hour but the guest speaks about brain activity relative to what our guest would call “Chronic Trauma” at 17 minutes and 40 seconds in.

What is interesting about this podcast, is that it is not just discussing and offering research percentages. It offers suggestions about what specific skills these kids need in order to fight against the unfortunate reality that they will continuously be exposed to trauma and stress.

Love Letter III: Dear J.

The third piece in my series of love letters dedicated to the experiences and people that touch me throughout the course of this semester. The latest, I letter to my student who sustained a gunshot in the stomach two weeks ago, and how I’ve been processing it all since.

*     *      *     *     *

Dear J.,

I hope this letter finds you well.

Well. Such a bland, insignificant word that often claims nothing more than mediocre ties to caring.

How are you feeling?

Feeling. We ask as if physical and mental emotions can be tersely conflated into a one word response like “good.”

We need to do better.

My heart

is heavy.

Heavy—of great weight; difficult to lift or move.

Heavy, a tangible mass, like what we feel when lifting our grocery bags or a small child up from the ground and into our arms

allowing for the contents to settle,

finding their places on the shelves of our hips, in the nooks of our arms and caverns of our eyes.

Bulbous tears have continued to drop from these eyes for the last seven days,

every time I end the second sentence of this story with, “…shot”.

I’ve told eight people about what happened to you.

Eight people have given me their ears, their eyes, their hearts, their hugs, their attention.

They have listened as I’ve unfolded the details of what went down last Thursday night:

                  You’d been shot in the belly.

                  It was gang-related.

                 You were in the ICU for the entire weekend, under a pseudonym so no one could find                    you, but you’re home now, resting.

                You lost three quarters of the blood in your body.

               And when the cops, standing on the steps of their precinct, saw you stumble forward                      towards the ground they rushed over and began interrogating you—asking you whether                  you were high or drunk.

              It wasn’t until they pulled you up to your feet, and you screamed out in pain, that they                      realized you had a bullet in your belly…

I can’t stop thinking about you—there is a stream of still and moving images playing on a loop in my mind, accompanied by an internal monologue of questions,

wondering about the moments building to crescendo—

who spoke the last words, what were they? Does it matter? Are you scared?

But this mentally isolated indie film streaming on my brain waves and plucking at my heartstrings is fabricated, imagined, “flattened by my seeing.”[1]

I have to examine how the “physical structures of our seeing and the patterns of thought these mechanisms create, among them spectating, consuming, and flattening, mis-take the world”[2]

You see, J., I’ve been retraumatizing myself over the course of this week. I continue thinking about this event, imagining not what it must be like to get shot; not even to self-deprecatingly wonder “what I could have done to save you.” No. I keep replaying this moment as my way of connecting with you and to the human emotions associated with trauma.

Because this notion of “gang violence” has become a soapy word in our American vernacular and on the 6 o’clock news.

While we might listen to these reports for an affirmation that a shooting took place somewhere deep in the South Bronx, or in Brownsville, or in the Heights—you know, a place where we “know these things take place” because the kids there are violent, illiterate, dangerous

—we don’t hear these stories, who these young people are,

nor do we pause to think about the institutional forces, the dominant narratives, and the normalized practices that are at play, convincing us that this is simply endemic of certain populations. It’s their problem, not ours.

We must ask ourselves, “Does the multiplicity of seeing tragedy compound the horror

or do the repetitive views overwhelm and desensitize?”[3]

This is the ‘closest’ I’ve been to knowing someone who’s been shot,

and I’m overwhelmingly aware of what a privilege it is for me to say this; for this to be my reality.

It’s not a feeling of guilt or naiveté; it’s the weight of the awareness, of the borders and worlds that I am straddling right now. I am working to reconcile my simultaneous locations in them all, and understanding that reconciliation is really neither feasible nor covetable.

This is difficult knowledge[4] we’re dealing with.

That’s not an excuse or prescription, but rather a description; a naming of place, and space and time that deserves attention and love. Or else the knowledge will become dangerous and polarizing (more so than perhaps it already is).

All this said, I want you to know, J, that I see you.

Though I may sometimes be looking at you…sometimes looking after you.

Please know that more than anything, I’m striving to see with you.[5]

Recover strong, heal well, and be safe.



Even before you got hurt, I looked for you in the hallway every Monday and Thursday, when you weren’t coming to school on a regular basis.

I stood against the wall, perching my heels at a 45-degree angle against the plaster and linoleum, scanning faces for yours

I walked up and down the hall once or twice, bobbing and weaving past individuals, then groups of friends, squirming through the hallways, occupying as much room as they can (and they should—they’ve been locked up in classrooms since 8am).

For the past month, I’ve come up empty handed every time, yet still kept looking.

And then today, I hadn’t started my search for you yet, I was going to get settled in my classroom first and there you were.

        You’re so much smaller than you were two months ago.

I try to make eye contact with you three times from across the hall, I try to wave, unsure if you see me.

I’m fighting off the guidance counselor who is handing me a survey the students have to fill out—that asks questions that we require them to place themselves in boxes, to represent their answers with “x”s; to place themselves back in the boxes that I am so committed to working with them to break out of.

I’m fighting off students streaming down the hallway, backpacks swinging, sneakers squeaking, laughter so loud, but it feels so far away.

I walk over and I know that you’ve seen me at this point. You’re clumsily putting your jacket on, pretending to be busy, being a 17-year-old.

You look up and make eye contact with me—I timidly unroll my arms to a curved wingspan, so incredibly unsure if this is ok. If I can come into contact with you. To hug you.

You mirror my limbs, a small smile on your face, and you hug me.

It lasts only a brief moment before we pull back.

I ask you how you are.


I ask you how you’re feeling.


And then I’ve go no other questions, not the slightest idea of what to say to you next…

I am not qualified for this shit…

…but it’s alright.

Since the last love letter I’ve realized that my lack of qualifications actually makes me one of the most qualified people to be having these experiences. To have these young people in my life. They are providing me with moments and glimmers of, and access to realities other than mine, which will slowly equip me with the qualifications to know that this “shit” can never truly be mastered, but that it is in the experiences I gain expertise in the willingness of unknowing.[6]

Post-script, written in the afternoon following the morning’s love letter.

[1] Gaudelli, W. (2011, p.1246)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Britzman, D. (1998, cited by W. Gaudelli, 2011)

[5] Gaudelli, W. (2011)

[6] Vasudevan (2010)

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