The second week into her grade eight year, she'd been referred to the office for making racist comments in the hallway. Walking into my office, Christina unceremoniously plunked herself into a chair, scooped up a candy from the container on my desk, popped it into her mouth and proceeded to tell me in great detail, and using some fairly colourful language, why it wasn't her fault that she'd used a racial slur against another student.
I let her continue, not correcting her language, or calling a halt to her rather creative and clearly embellished version of events. I just sat. And listened. And watched. And wondered what could have possibly happened in this thirteen years old's life to bring her to this point...
Looking over her file after our first meeting, my suspicions were confirmed. To say that Christina had weathered some challenges in her young life would be an understatement. By the time she found her way to me, Christina was a seasoned veteran of social services, ministry testing and behavioural interventions. Navigating ongoing dysfunction at home and learning challenges at school, Christina had a remarkable talent for finding her way into the middle of physical and verbal conflicts on a daily basis. She was a tough cookie. A vulnerable kid wrapped in a tough protective shell.
With the additional insight into her story, over the next 6 months I carefully and consciously worked to develop a relationship with Christina. And when I say worked, I mean it. She didn't make it easy. A girl who had been repeatedly let down by the adults in her life, trust was a foreign concept to her. Her "go to" defence strategy was to push people away by whatever means necessary- both physically and verbally.
Over time, and with a number of supports in place, Christina began to experience some success. But as is so often the case, just as things seemed to be going well, she would inevitably find a way to sabotage her progress. Thirteen years of deeply engrained distrust and dysfunction wasn't easy to overcome. And so I continued to work at it. Because underneath the tough shell, I could see Christina's potential- an undeniable spark of intelligence, creativity and compassion. On a daily basis I tried to be Christina's mirror- to help her to see what I could see...
Thankfully, not every student has faced Christina's challenges. But every student has a story, a context that they carry with them as they walk through the front doors of our schools and into our classrooms. As educators, it is our responsibility to learn these stories and to carefully and consciously work to build the relationships that will support each students' unique path to success.
"To This Day" by Canadian spoken word poet Shane Koyczan has always resonated with me. In it he writes;
...if you can't see anything beautiful about yourself
get a better mirror...
Let's never forget that for many of our students, we are that mirror.