It's In The Air We Breathe

Wisdom comes to those who remain open to learning and who find connections through the vast experiences of life. A general "settledness" of body and mind resides in the wise. I don't believe there exists a "top of the mountain". . . only a becoming. Slowly, I am becoming wise.

I have learned so much this year of "beauty and terror" (Rilke). So much of what I've learned has come from self-reflection. I'm sure many can say the same. One major catalyst for my new understanding of myself was reading (and studying with a group) My Grandmother's Hands, by Menakem. In it, Menakem (a trauma therapist) provides exercises to begin the journey of healing racialized trauma. "Our bodies exist in the present," he writes, "to your thinking brain, there is past, present, and future, but to a traumatized body there is only now. That now is the home of intense survival energy." (p.XV) Racialized trauma is real, as is white supremacy today. It's built into our culture and in the air we breathe. Menakem's book, paired with the wise people with whom I studied it, helped me understand that.

Menakem's book also helped me understand traumatic experiences, which are not related to the racialized trauma he directs us toward in the book, but are generational (something I knew very little about before reading his book).

In my first year of teaching, my class was an "alternative" education class: grades 5-12, in an unused room at the elementary school, with no textbooks and no curriculum. My teaching shift was split between 4 hours in the day time and a couple of hours at night. Some high school boys in foster care were transported from a neighboring rural town in the evening and we quickly learned that a security guard was required after one boy lunged at me as I sat across the desk from him. I was fortunate to work with a compassionate guard, who (on most days) blended in. The evening students were tough kids. I cared about them and worried about them. I remained alert for anything which might shed light on their learning needs.

When I heard one 5th grade student (with speech issues) say he slept in his dad's bed, a red flag appeared. There were other flags, but this one caused me enough concern that I reported it to my supervisor. My supervisor had known the family for a long time and dismissed my concern. This was my first year of teaching, so I trusted my supervisor and wondered whether I was hyper-vigilant (also that year, 2000, I was berated by the father of a boy whom I reported for his pictures of blowing up the school).

One evening in class, a high school boy attempted to complete his Health assignment. He paged through his Health text which showed pictures of a victim of child abuse with bruises on her face and cuts on her body. This student burst into a horribly forced laughter gaining everyone's attention. "Ha ha! Look at that guys. Look at her," he said, smiling. The 5th grade student who slept with his dad was watching, smiling nervously.*

I felt a reaction in my body that was completely foreign to me. Immediately I took his book from him, yelling that child abuse was not at all funny. The security guard immediately came and asked me to leave the room while the student calmed down (and I calmed down). I remember how my body felt at that moment: heart racing, tunnel vision, adrenaline coursing through my body. 'This is how rage feels,' I thought. It frightened me.

After processing that event, I realized a couple of things. 1. This student probably had experienced abuse during his short life so far and didn't know how to handle seeing those images in his text book. 2. A traumatic event from my early life lived in me, closer to the surface than I had realized. This personal event happened when I was around 8 and my brain has still blocked the complete memory. I remember what I was wearing, who I was with and exactly where I was, but not much else. I do know I got in the biggest trouble I'd ever been in with my mom, who punished me.

After the experience with the student detailed above, and the subsequent processing, I invited my mom to my house and asked her directly about my own experience that I couldn't (still can't) remember. All she could say was, "I responded with much anger." And I already knew that. I wanted so much to 'get past' my feelings of shame and guilt so was disheartened and disappointed with her statement. I never pushed the subject more and my mom is gone. It is up to me to grow out of the shame and guilt of this event; it is so hard. I knew that it had been hard for my mom to 'get past' her own childhood abuse story.

I recognize now, after reading My Grandmother's Hands that this intergenerational story had been passed through time, from my mom to me; while I don't have children of my own, I have spent my adult life teaching children and young adults. Looking back I see different triggers that sparked anger in my body. I am soft-spoken and patient, so all of that negative energy has been internalized for all these years, which (as it turns out) is not a healthy way to live.

Now I am regularly practicing the body settling exercises from Menakem's book and can feel what's happening in my body more often before things start spiraling. I can highly recommend My Grandmother's Hands by Resmaa Menakem as a step toward healing racialized trauma. I also recommend it as a step toward healing generational trauma. I've learned that I will never 'arrive'; I'll be ever striving toward settling my own body and Menakem writes that a settled body is a good starting point for the healing work we 'white' people will need to participate in. Daily I practice breathing deeply and it helps.

* Much later in my teaching career I learned that this 5th grade student's father had abused him for years and was finally prosecuted.

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