Turning Sorrow to Joy

I’ve been wondering: When does pain turn to joy? I wish I could push a button and make it happen.

I am in Canada for a summer hiatus. As I have had time to rest and contemplate and begin to heal from the difficult blow of a transfer in my teaching position from one school to another, I have been working hard to free myself from the burden of it. I am fortunate to spend my summers with people whom I love and cherish at a family cottage on Lake Huron – a place that is my soul reviver. The quiet that I crave all school year as a high school teacher of New to Country immigrant and refugee students is here in the wind, the waves, the trees, the rocks. And I’m working hard on reclaiming joy.

I watch my students choose joy as they come to school each day. I watch them intently take notes as I write them on the board. I listen to them read chorally with pride and confidence as we process works of fiction aloud. I see them wide eyed and pleased when they receive an unexpectedly good grade on a paper that they wrote. It is beautiful, really.

But there are certainly tangible moments in my classroom when it is difficult to discern between the loss and the joy of this newfound life that my devoted and hardworking students now claim. I sometimes see their losses clearly embedded on their faces. As refugees, they have lost their home. Many have lost parents and siblings to war and famine. Even though they now live in the safety that is Minnesota, they have left behind families and friends, their sense of place, their very own countries, often never to return. Bound up in their loss is sometimes their own very identity as a people.

As my students feel a sense of loss surrounding their homes and their communities in Africa, I, too, felt a deep and abiding loss as I left Apollo High School, my school of nine years, on June 8. Packing up my classroom on the last days of school was nerve wracking. It was exceedingly difficult to leave my supportive and loving community where I built foundational relationships and excellent rapport with my family of students and staff. Locking my door behind me pretty much did me in; I turned in my keys and shut my door on nine years of investment, on my sense of belonging, and on my identity as a teacher who had helped to build a program for New to Country students since 2008.

But my situation pales in comparison to that of so many: my dear friends who are suffering from cancers and leukemia; friends whose marriages are on difficult ground; the Syrian families who are fleeing famine and ISIS; the children of Nigeria who are being coerced into becoming warriors for Boko Haram. And then there is the pain that my students feel, which shows itself at unexpected moments and to which I now feel more attuned.

Many of them were born and raised in refugee camps or in countries where war and gang strife was rampant enough to prompt their families to the desperate point of fleeing the familiar for the United States. I speak to many of my students who miss the simple life of their Ethiopian or Kenyan refugee camps. They tell me of their old world, where neighbors and families shared everything: rice, pots, water, showers, mats, clothing, and shoes. In the camps, children played freely with pals for hours as they ran about from tarped hut to hut playing hide and seek and endless games of soccer with makeshift balls made of duct tape.

Imagine leaving your family and homeland and heading to a country that you have never laid eyes upon. Think upon leaving your set routine, your livelihood, your identity as a member of a particular group in whatever place you now live. Then mentally set yourself in a completely foreign place where the people speak a different language that you do not understand, where the clothing, religion, food, community structures, housing, transportation, and weather is unlike what you have always known. You want to fit in, but you don’t know how. You miss your family in your homeland but you can’t afford to get back to see them and you don’t know when you might. Your grandmother has died in your home country and you can’t attend her funeral. And, to make matters worse, the government in your new land seems to be against you, and you feel loss, loss, lost.

At present, I, too, feel deep loss. I am heading to a new school. I am going to have to build a new set of friendships with colleagues whose faces I don’t yet know. I will not be on familiar ground. My darling students from Apollo whom I know so well will not be stopping in each morning to check in, and I am already missing my stellar Apollo colleagues, who have my back and who often know me better than I know myself. And I want to fit in, but I know I’m going to be in mourning. And I feel loss, loss, lost.

And so, as my time of rest and healing in Canada wanes and I ready my mind and heart for a return to a set of new realities, I am putting a roadblock in front of the resentment that has tried to gain a foothold in my soul. I’m working hard on remembering to be grateful for all that I do have and for what I know in my gut will end with positives. I just can’t see them yet, and that’s okay.

Since my own eyes and heart are better attuned to the singular loss of community, I will get to do the profound, hard, and lovely work of helping my students gain a sense of belonging in their new land as we work together toward becoming comfortable in our fresh identities as Tech High School Tigers. It will be my work and privilege to turn both my students and myself toward the painstaking and delightful results that will follow in our newfound place that is Technical High School. We will belong – I know this. My pain, their pain, shall turn to joy. May it be so.