Depression sucks. Since I was diagnosed over 10 years ago (which, by the way, what!? 10 years!?), my depression has been a source of pain and confusion in my life. It has harmed my relationships, impeded my professional life, and at times caused me to doubt my salvation. At its mildest, it will knock me off kilter for a couple of days. At its worst, it will make getting out of bed feel like climbing Mount Everest.
Even with all of that, I found myself in my classroom yesterday thanking God for my depression.
Yesterday I had one of those classes that reminds me why I teach. My job is hard, and no one in their right mind teaches for the money. We do it for the lightbulb moments, for the chance to share the things we love with others. And more and more, I do it because teenagers are human beings with rich internal lives, and it’s important to me that they have an adult who recognizes that fact.
My biggest goal for my students is that they will be people who have empathy. I approach everything we read as an opportunity to put ourselves in someone else’s place, to look at things from a different perspective. I ask them to relate not only to characters who are similar to them, but to characters who are vastly different. And we often find that the characters who seem to be lightyears away from us are actually more like us than we think.
This week my 10th graders began reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. It is a difficult book that has a lot of tough scenes and confronts a lot of difficult issues, but is also a favorite among my students. In just the fifth chapter, a character commits suicide in a particularly devastating way. Because I know it is a hard chapter to read, I always give my students a warning before they read it that it could be emotional for them and the first thing we do the next day is spend time journalling our thoughts so that they have a place to process what they’re feeling.
Yesterday in one class, that journalling led to open weeping from a number of students. This is my third year teaching these particular students, and they know that my classroom is a safe place for this kind of thing (which is quite honestly probably the achievement I am most proud of in my life – no joke). We talked about how we saw reflections of ourselves in the character that committed suicide and in that character’s family members and even in the character who is a bit of a villain at this point in the story. We talked about how life is hard and how we wish that we could step outside and see ourselves as characters in a book and know that the story was going somewhere. We talked about how that character was in a situation where she could not ask for help, and how grateful we are that we can ask for help. We talked about how asking for help is strength, not weakness.
We didn’t write a paragraph about how Hosseini’s use of third person limited point of view affects the reader like we were supposed to. We cried and talked and wrestled with our feelings, and then we watched a video of ducks sliding down a waterslide to cheer ourselves up before heading off into the rest of the day.
A lot of people would probably consider me to be too “soft” on my students. They may think that I spend too much time talking about fluff and not enough time on analytical skills or grammar rules. They may think that I am too open about my personal life and that I shouldn’t bring up my own struggles with depression in the classroom. Well, I have never once regretted being open with my students about that. If my oversharing can give me the opportunity to speak into the lives of students who are hurting, I will accept any negative consequences that come with it.
I looked at my students crying together and comforting each other and wrestling with these difficult things and I was filled with both joy and heartache. Joy at seeing the way they love each other and for the opportunity to love them myself; heartache that they even have to feel this pain in the first place.
The students that I get to interact with every day are the most amazing people I have ever met in my life. They work so much harder than I ever did as a student and complain about it much less. They look at the world around them and see the challenges that they are going to face and rather than becoming cynical and giving up, they are trying to think of ways to make it better. And it kills me that this world and our culture and other adults in their lives make them feel like they are not good enough, like they are ridiculous, like they do not have the right to feel the things that they feel.
If I can do nothing else, I want my students to leave my classroom knowing without a doubt that every single person on the face of this planet is a valuable human being, no matter what. Race, religion, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, education – none of that has any bearing on a human being’s intrinsic value. If I can teach them that, I honestly don’t care if they can correctly use a semicolon.