I’ve often struggled to quantify human suffering. Growing up, my family could quiet my complaints with a simple, “People are starving in Africa, you’ve got it pretty good.” And in hindsight, I did have it pretty easy. But I remember clearly how difficult high school was and how minor incidents impacted me more than they did before or since. I was a raw nerve in high school, and the painful moments served to toughen me up for future challenges. I’m grateful for my suffering, even though it may have been minor.
So why did J’s story tug at my heartstrings as it did? What part of her e-mail spoke to me enough to commit to telling her story?
To answer that, I’d have to reference my group. I hadn’t spoken much to Maya and Sydney prior to the group project, but I was quickly amazed at how our different perspectives put J’s struggles in perspective. As a teacher, I’d grown accustomed to teenagers that I wanted to help but couldn’t (and thousands of reasons exist why my hands get tied). I found it thrilling to introduce two young women, closer in age to J than to me, the reality of many teens’ lives in Chicago. With Maya’s degree in psychology, we were able to identify some of the ways that J’s trauma informed her answers to our questions. We recognized how J’s past created her present. And Sydney connected with J in a way that only she could–she showed J her goofy side and drew out honesty that the three of us together couldn’t.
The three of us all connected with J in our own way, and hopefully we all helped her in our own way. I know the purpose of the assignment wasn’t to help someone, but rather to tell their story. But I can’t deny what I feel is my calling, and I couldn’t separate my feelings from this piece. And I don’t apologize for it.
Perhaps the reason I feel like my hands are tied when I try to help high school students is because one person can only do so much. A support system needs to be in place. Various connections need to be drawn because we only empathize with the parts of people with which we relate. Thus, this project was only successful because Maya and Sydney were my group mates. Thus, a school is only successful if everyone’s hands are on deck.
But to help a person tell a story–to share a story and allow ten, twenty, or thousands of people bear witness to another’s pain; therein lies the power. It’s my hope that by sharing J’s story, we were able to disperse some of the repressed trauma she’d held inside herself for so long. In an ideal world, J’s wish would come true, and her family would be reunited.
But since life doesn’t always go as we wish, I hope that J will feel a sense of agency, knowing that her story is one that other people care about.