Talking About Tragedy

-by Jack M. Jose

Events of the past two weeks have shocked the nation. Videos of the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have been widely spread, and even more widely discussed and debated. The shooting of 11 Dallas police officers, leaving 5 dead, while they escorted a Black Lives Matter march, created a national crisis. Then a truck ran into a large crowd in Nice, France, killing 84 people. And Sunday morning’s news brought the deaths of 3 more police officers in Baton Rouge. … Or perhaps you are reading this article after these events have faded; in that case you can likely fill in your own tragic “news of the week” that has created a comparable feeling of anxiety and dread.

Whether on television, at the newsstand, or on Facebook or other social media, the headlines always proclaim something to fear.

Our children arrive at school with questions and concerns. They have seen horrific images. They have heard of deaths and worse. Perhaps their parents have shielded them from it, and they’ve learned about it in the halls, or perhaps their parents have involved them in the discussion, have added on their own fears and conjecture. We know that when the world of safety and well-being is at risk, our bodies produce adrenaline, and we are unable to master even short-term memory tasks, let alone take on the deep learning demanded today. Our students, less familiar with the news and thus less able to deal with the experience of the stress reaction, are even less capable of dealing with it. They cannot just “forget about it” or even push it to the side for too long.

Students often worry about national and international events they see on the news.
Students often worry about national and international events they see on the news.

What do you do when you can’t ignore it, and an outside tragedy simply has to be addressed in your classroom? There are a series of questions to guide you through the process of addressing fears, whether it is the questioning of a single child or a group of wary adults. Through the lens of these four questions, we can start to address the difficult work of talking about tragedy. For the purpose of unification of the article, the Philando Castile shooting will remain the primary (though not the only) example throughout.

What do you know?

With younger children, “What do you know?” is an obvious first question. (It is especially handy when you suspect there is a “birds and bees” question coming. Often, “what do you know” lets you start a couple levels easier than you thought!) This gives you a chance to assess what the student(s) know, and to determine what, if any, misconceptions they may have about the situation. The same is true for our adolescents and even adults engaging in a conversation. Asking “what do you know” is a great start to any discussion, because it grounds it in facts.

The teacher is a helpful guide in this conversation, and she must be diligent in her attention to details. It is important that there is precision in language, and that the individuals involved are spoken about respectfully. For example, if discussing the shooting of Philando Castile, our conventions of discussion would dictate that we refer to him as Mr. Castile, and to the officer involved as Officer Yanez. Later we might need to look up the names of Mr. Castile’s girlfriend, and the other officer involved to facilitate the conversation. We might point out that news agencies would be unlikely to publish the young girl’s name, because she is a minor and responsible media generally respect the right of privacy for minors. These conventions of manners and civility retain the dignity of those who are being discussed, and thus uphold our own classroom values. We can establish the city in which the event occurred, the date and time, and other factual information.

Insisting on civility and the facts is tremendously reassuring. The knowledge that an effort is being made to be objective and to get things right helps calm our students. Refusing to use loaded language such as “resisting” or “assassination”, with the explanation that these words are characterization rather than facts, will keep the conversation in a more rational spot.  It can also create order and reason among students who, especially in a case such as this, may have very different and strongly emotional interpretations of the significance of the event.

What do you fear?

This is an important second question, and the one that most clearly allows you to address the fears of the individual students. By asking this question, you will get to peek inside their minds, in a sense, and find out what drives their strong reaction. Using the example above, a student might express a fear that their own father or uncle might be at risk, and you might learn that their concern stems from that individual being a black man, or an officer, or both … or neither.

The fears of children can be outsized and, in our minds, irrational. However, dismissing their concerns out-of-hand is not reassuring. In their book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish remind us that in order to stay in good communication with our children, at any age, we must first accept their viewpoint as valid. If a child expresses a fear that police will go around shooting more and more people, the teacher must resist the urge to laugh or mock this viewpoint. “That’s ridiculous, you don’t have to worry about that,” might seal the deal for an adult, but it is not reassuring to a child. In fact, it will likely damage their trust in you, and make it less likely that they will open up to you in the future, since they will then know their viewpoint will not be seen as valid.

Instead, if a fear seems outsized or irrational, it should be treated with respect, and revisited with examples and gentle questions. “Why do you worry about that?” is a good follow-up question. This might elicit a specific incident in the child’s past that opens up a related set of fears. Or, it might prompt the child to self-examine. In this questioning, the student himself might note that although he saw this one video, that in fact he knows several adults who have stories about being pulled over and this has not happened to them. The teacher might provide other related facts, perhaps about the number of traffic stops daily that pass without incident, or an investigation of what draws people to become a police officer. The desire to help others, which is a common answer to that question, does not correlate well with an eagerness to shoot others.

The teacher must guard herself against personalizing the issue. It is a powerful human tendency to treat our personal experience as if it is proof of something true when, at best, it is merely a pixel of evidence in a much larger picture. That does not mean that her perspective and experience are not true or a valuable part of the conversation; it does, however, mean that it should not be treated as the end of the discussion on that matter.

Whether on television, at the newsstand, or on Facebook or other social media, the headlines always proclaim something to fear

I was teaching at Hughes High School in Cincinnati in April, 2001 when 19 year old Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by Officer Steven Roach, kicking off weeks of civil unrest in our city. I was a white teacher in a classroom of predominantly black students, and we found ourselves involved in a challenging conversation about the incident. My most vocal students were advocating for running from the police, perhaps just to show me their attitude toward authority, or perhaps for other reasons. By using the Socratic method of questioning, I helped the students have a fact-based and growth-focused conversation about the incident. As we covered the details we knew, a student pointed out that Mr. Thomas ran because he was scared. I asked, “And how did Officer Roach probably feel?” Students offered, “angry,” “salty” (slang for “embarrassed”) and then one student said, “Awwww!” and the room went quieter. “No,” this student exclaimed, aware that he’d had an important insight.  “He was feeling scared too, running down a dark alley after some guy.” This changed the conversation for us, as some of the students had not considered the perspective of each person involved, just the person who was most like them.

Sometimes the fear a child expresses is completely rational. The child whose mother is a police officer is understandably afraid for her safety when she is at work. A child might fear what could happen if his father got pulled over by police. When these fears are expressed, there is not a statement to be used as a talisman to push them away. There should not even be a desire to push them away. Fear is real. Fear is personal. It is not, in itself, irrational. Attempting to simply soothe someone’s fear or to make them feel better is not the answer. Understanding and sympathy – literally “feeling with” – are the best tools at our disposal. “I am certain that you worry about that. I am sorry that it causes you anxiety.” Feeling heard and understood is good medicine for fear.

What do you hope?

Taking the discussion from the realm of fear to the realm of hope can be a pivotal moment in a conversation, and a transformative moment in the classroom. Asking this question next allows the group to move on from the discussion of our fears – where, sadly, we may compound each others’ fears, as students now hear new things which make them scared – to a more positive focus.

One important change the question “What do you hope?” brings about is greater involvement in the conversation. Some students may have sat out the first part of the conversation because they did not know as much as their peers, or because their thoughts were being well-represented by other students, or because they were simply uncomfortable sharing their fears with others. Some may not have gotten involved because they feel no direct connection to the incident. However, we are all creative, and those students whose voices were not heard during the discussion of our fears are often interested in describing their vision of the world as it could be.

Frankly, children are really good at “hope.” Their optimistic eyes can see opportunities for peace and cooperation that we adults have long since stopped being able to see. And like in the “fears” discussion, the teacher will receive some ideas that she, with her age and wisdom, might feel tempted to dispel. Fortunately, I probably do not have to tell anyone that you should not say to a child, “Well, we can’t ALL love EVERYBODY.” So they will propose a more perfect vision of the future that may exclude violence, or eliminates the need for police, or may likely come up with something we cannot even image. The correct answer for this is “Wouldn’t that be great!” Meanwhile, the teacher can still root the optimism to reality. The child who suggests “We can make it so the police don’t shoot,” might get a response that “Yes, perhaps with different training this could happen.” The switch in the conversation is not merely semantic, however. The human brain needs to experience optimism, and can be trained to do it.  A student proposing a majestic, sweeping solution can be helped to make it more specific, which makes it less ethereal and more likely to occur – a solution rather than a dream. Tamar Chansky, author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, acknowledges that creating realistic steps within an optimistic view helps redirect the anxiety into a constructive state of mind. This makes the situation survivable, and thus more mundane.

Insisting on civility and the facts is tremendously reassuring

This question also engages us – students and teachers – intellectually, and gets us out of our amygdala and into the rest of our brain. We are also heartbroken by these events, and the sense of powerlessness we feel to affect change. This question is more than an exercise, it is a form of therapy. We cannot resist problem solving under most conditions. It is a strong evolutionary trait (coupled with the also-indispensable ability to worry about the future) that has treated us well over time.

17k53yHow can you act?

Fred Rogers, longtime host of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, would get scared seeing tragic events on TV as a child. His mother would tell him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” He says that this thought brings him comfort to this day. All around us, in every situation, there are people who are helping rather than hurting. It brings him comfort because it draws us out of helplessness into our sphere of influence and allows us a chance to take action.

What do we know? What do we fear? What do we hope? How can we help?

When we learned that Philando Castile had been a cafeteria supervisor in a Montessori school, members of the Montessori community in Cincinnati wanted to do something specific and positive to honor his life. We reached out to one another on Facebook. A small group met at Gamble on the Wednesday after the event to brainstorm a response. What we came up with was a three-part response. First, we agreed to act in our own backyard. In response to a suggestion that we should put a picture of Philando Castile on our cafeteria, which we rejected, it was proposed that instead we honor our own cafeteria workers with a picture in a prominent place. We also sent a peace lily to Mr. Castile’s funeral, with the message “To the Family & Friends of Philando Castile – Our hearts are full of love and sorrow as your family and our country mourn the loss and celebrate the life of your son, brother, and friend. In sympathy, Cincinnati Public Schools, Montessori Coalition.”

Then we turned to the issue of talking with our students, staff and parents. We acknowledged that this conversation would vary based on the age of our students. Elementary schools were likely going to plan for a different type of conversation than our high schools. Within our own conversation we were able to anticipate challenges of underlying biases and beliefs. We acknowledged the importance of setting up an opportunity for our parents and staff to talk in a safe place. We were learning to dance together, we realized. We had to make it okay to step on each others’ toes without quitting. This was true for the teachers and administrators, and would be true in our classrooms, and in our PTO meetings as well, where a great diversity of opinions would be aired. Creating this atmosphere starts with an overt statement at the beginning of the conversation: at least one of us is likely to say something unintentionally hurtful or offensive, but we all have made ourselves vulnerable by attending this conversation. We have to respect and value that risk.

With our staff, we agreed to participate in an awareness-raising activity, to help our teachers be aware that each of us are struggling with hidden issues and concerns.

In the proper structure, and given a safe place to express fears and ideas, students can come up with some impressive solutions. This conversation will always be emotional, challenging, and exhausting, but difficult conversations frequently are. Following these steps will help create a better sense of understanding and efficacy among all involved.