Tom and I plunge headlong into the woods on yet another punishing hike up an icy mountain. Hours and hours of sweating in the woods is the regulator in the up-down emotional beating that is our world right now. It’s the fifth day in a row of some self-imposed all day grind up some mountain or another. He starts off grumbling (humorously) under his breath about how some people when they’re on vacation sit around and put their feet up and relax and maybe read a book rather than getting dragged on one adventure after another by their "batshit crazy" wife. Hmmm. This does ring true. Then again, he does continue to say yes and then follow me out the door on these outings. I can hear Tom humming along behind me: Drank a cheeseburger, ate a six pack, took a Darvon to kill the pain… the song goes on to say something about being a rodeo cowboy and living through it all so you can talk about it later. Jerry Jeff Walker, I think. Tom’s suffering generally comes off as comic relief.
To be honest though, by the end of the week I am in ruins. Trashed. A pile of wreckage. February has been quite a stretch of joyful highs and dark lows: A 17 year old becomes the youngest snowboarder to win an Olympic gold. A student opens fire on his classmates. The U.S. Women’s hockey team brings home the gold medal for the first time in 20 years. Parents bury their children in Parkland, Florida. The Olympics inspire and unify us as a nation and global community. Politics and fear divide us with equal vigor. Soar and glide. Crash and bleed. Pick yourself up. Repeat.
I don’t spend a lot of time on social media. I take regular “fasts” from the news. It’s not quite a head in the sand approach to survival, but I’m not proud of how close it comes to that. I learned years ago that I am easily jolted off balance and kept awake staring at the ceiling if I don’t keep the worry of the world at arm’s length, in stasis. It’s one reason I spend so much time in the woods where things make sense. We humans are a confusing mix of strong and fragile. Equal parts unmoving moss covered stone foundations in the Vermont woods and ... also a teetering tower of Jenga. We do our best to stand tall in a superhero pose, bravely pinging away with raised forearm the incessant meteor showers of bad news. School shootings. Ping. AR-15s. Ping. The Taliban. Ping. The national budget. Ping. Economics, sex trafficking, opioid addiction, student debt, health care. Ping, ping, ping, ping, ping. The second amendment, parents burying their children, the NRA, climate change. Ping, ping, ping, ping. But then, and somehow simultaneously behind the armor, also a forlorn weeping trembling rocking-in-the-corner puddle of uselessness. Keeping kilter is confusing, hard work, and sometimes only barely manageable.
I work in a school. My desk is the first thing you see when you walk in the front door. If our little school becomes next on the list, I will almost without a doubt be the first body to fall. While this thought has given me reason to shop the internet for my own personal bullet-proof vest, imagining my bleeding body on the floor is, oddly, not the thought that keeps me up at night. I can’t stop thinking about the kids on both sides of this story. For one child, things are so far gone that he sees his very best option as walking into a school with a semi-automatic weapon and opening fire. And for the rest, we adults, the ones who are supposed to be in charge of things and keeping order and making sure everyone is okay... we are either bodies on the floor or survivors who failed all involved in one way or another.
The ongoing passionate debate about gun control vs. second amendment rights is missing the point. There are a lot of things that need to be figured out. A lot of brokens that need to be fixed. A lot of hurdles and obstacles demanding courage and cooperation and patience and resilience and creative navigation. In the meantime, there’s another factor at play that needs a little more air time in the collective conversation: there has got to be more that each of us can do to connect with the kids in our lives. In our classrooms, in the halls, in the lunchroom, on the playground, on the bus. The big and little ways each day we say to a child I see you and you matter — this is everything.
We already know it makes a difference. We already know that bringing attention to the social-emotional learning of a child is just as important as the academic content of what happens at school. Robert Brooks's research tells us that "strengthening a student’s self-worth is not an 'extra' curriculum; if anything, a student’s sense of belonging, security, and self-confidence in a classroom provides the scaffolding that supports the foundation for learning, motivation, self-discipline, responsibility, and the capacity to deal more effectively with mistakes." Kids need connections. We all do. Resilient adults commonly report that they had what it took to get through adversity when they were younger because they knew they had someone in their corner, someone looking out for them, someone believing in them. We need to make contact. And, also maybe spend as much time sweating (and singing) in the woods as we can.