Why Was I Emotional at My Daughter's Meet The Teacher Night?
I found myself becoming emotional at my youngest daughter’s meet the teacher night this year. I did not expect to have feelings from the past resurface that night, but there was something that resonated with a deep part of me. I silently observed my daughter’s greetings with her classmates as they reconnected after a summer away from each other. I observed her interactions with her new teacher. I slowed down to greet the parents who were present, finally making it a point to step out of my comfort zone. The night brought me back to memories of what my third grade experience was like and the deep impact that year has had on my life all of these years later.
I have always believed that our experiences shape us. They color the lens of our perspective in life, stir up the raw emotions inside of us that we can’t always express, and influence our approach in every situation that we are faced with. My lens was filtered by some traumatic experiences when I was in third grade. It is interesting to me that this is the year those memories have resurfaced with such clarity. But as I learn more about trauma and unpack what my experience of “normal” was growing up, I have been able to recognize how it relates to the season of parenting that I am in with my youngest daughter. In some ways, I am reconnecting to my third grade experience while I try to help my daughter navigate her own experience.
What is Trauma?
The most basic way to describe trauma is as deeply painful and distressing life circumstances. Distressing life circumstances look different for all of us. It is part of why trauma effects us each differently.
There was a lot of life unfolding before me in third grade.
It was the year that a story started to unfold in my life that was being written for me. The adults in my life were holding the pen, writing the scenes that I had no control over. What 8 year old does? I did not have the words to tell my story at that age. In fact, even as an adult, I still wrestle with what can be shared and what has to remain untold.
There is one thing I knew at the time is something I have cherished since. My third grade teacher made her classroom a place of refuge and safety.
At school, I had to learn how to deal with some mean girls who were my friends one day, and shunned me the next. The year that the soles on my gym shoes became undone and it sounded like a clap with each step that I took. I learned to laugh along with the kids who made fun of me in order to hide the embarrassment.
It was also the year that my parent’s separated and later divorced. I had no idea about the depth of pain that this would carry into the rest of my life. I remember listening to the conversations of adults that I shouldn’t have been listening to. I heard pieces of information that I tried to make sense of. Then, a few days later, I woke up to my father sobbing as he sat at the foot of my bed. He was saying good-bye. And then he left.
I wrestled with knowing that my mother did a brave thing to keep us safe and hiding the fact that even though this brought some relief, it also brought grief over a lost relationship with him.
I remember feeling so many different emotions that I had no words to describe. Well into my 40s, I now understand that my experiences were traumatic. Although it had become normal to me, it wasn't healthy. It was the beginning of a lifelong cycle of coping with feelings of abandonment, grief, sadness, anger, loneliness, hopelessness, blame, and shame...to name a few.
Feelings I couldn’t label when I was young.
The most stable place in my life at the time, was my classroom. When your classroom is a safe place to be, it makes a big difference in how you learn.
I don’t know how she did it, but my teacher made me feel connected to her and to my classmates. She saw me. She knew me by name and took the time to try to guide my path that year.
I felt like I belonged somewhere. I remember when she mediated a conflict between me and the mean girls. She helped us talk things over as she tried to teach me how to have a voice and speak up for my needs. It went against the silence that I had learned to bear in my home setting, and I value her lessons to this day.
My teacher held a pen and wrote scenes into my daily life as well. She very purposefully wrote in settings of safety, security, community, voice.
Throughout the years I have wondered what my teacher observed that would bring her to have such compassion for me. What made her visit my home? Sit at the kitchen table with my mother? Have a conversation in which she arranged an after school shopping trip to a local shoe store and used her own money to buy me two pairs of shoes?
I learned a lot in third grade but it wasn't in a way that a test could measure. I don't remember the books we read, the spelling lists I had to write, or exactly what type of math I learned that year.
I learned a little bit about my value and worth. About kindness and compassion. About patience and perseverance. These were the qualities that my teacher modeled when everything else felt uncertain.
How Does One Cope with Trauma When it Resurfaces?
To recognize something is an important first step in addressing it. Unrecognized feelings can't necessarily be resolved...they can just be set aside or buried until the next time that they resurface.
There are many ways to learn how to cope with traumatic experiences. Sometimes it takes working with a professional to help you see the parts of trauma that are clouded by emotions.
For me, it is a continual journey of healing by recognizing it and making peace with it.
I have decided that I can’t dwell on the hurt from my past. I have accepted that what unfolded in my life when I was in third grade, was beyond my control. For a long time, I was a victim of my circumstances. I was defined by brokenness, even when anger is what surfaced. I am still learning today that there was always a depth of pain underneath. But naming that pain and working through it helps me find the forgiveness that I need to offer myself and to others who unknowingly hurt me at that time.
I practice mindfulness to bring myself into the moment. I remind myself that my story is not my daughter's story.
I become a student of my surroundings. I learn about childhood through my daughter's lens as we walk through this part of life together.
I study her mannerisms, how she looks at life, and where she is at this stage in her life. I remind myself that I want her to have a childhood and we figure out what that looks like together.
Past trauma can impact our parenting in many ways because it has colored our lens and impacted all of our relationships, including the relationships we have with our children. We must recognize the cycles that may be repeated if we don’t acknowledge the way that trauma has shaped us.
How Can You Rewrite Your Story? Or Help Someone Else Rewrite Their Story?
How Can a Teacher Help Cope with Trauma?
Maybe you can relate to a painful childhood experience. It can be hard to recognize how we are impacted by our past experiences. We may not realize how it has created some obstacles in being able to connect to our own children.
Maybe you are a teacher who provides a place of refuge and safety for the students you work with every day. You may not know the stories of each student in your class, but you still have a daily opportunity to impact each person in a valuable way.
You can also be a trusted adult in a different setting, such as a youth group, a community center, or a family friend to someone else who is hurting. You can reach out and be a support to the people you interact with on a daily basis.