Last Monday was the culmination ceremony for the “Speaking-Listening” residency of the middle schoolers I’ve been working with in Santa Ana for the past four months. The road getting them through the barrage of speaking and listening challenges over the last few months has been littered with conflict, joy, tears, laughter and, sometimes, even a few miracles.
I had about 200 students participating in the culmination. Whereas the focus is typically on the speakers, my attention was directed to the audience. Together, me and these six classrooms of middle schoolers had labored through some pretty intense focused listening exercises. This was their time to either succeed or fail as supportive, focused listeners.
Each speaker that approached the stage pushed pasted their individual fears and doubts. It was exciting for me to witness. To say that I swelled with pride would be an understatement. There were a few hiccups in the focused listening of a few in our audience but I will take two or three falling down and getting back up as wonderful odds.
It is an indescribable sense of satisfaction to witness as students implement, in real world situations, practices that you’ve taught them. I watched as “my” kids exercised short, simple breathing exercises to push nervousness away, reposition their postures and move forward towards the edge of their chairs.
When we reached the end of the culmination, I approached the stage to tell them what an amazing group of scholars they’d proven themselves to be when a young boy raised his hand near the center of the audience.
I had never seen this young man. He wasn’t in any of the six classes that I had worked with. His eyes were very sad. I was drawn to him. I walked from the stage, down the aisle and approached him. When I asked him why his hand was raised, he simply said that he had a story to share.
Even though I had never worked with him, or even met him for that matter, I allowed him to take the stage. I have a policy of being as supportive as possible when children exert themselves in a positive manner or express an interest in something.
The young man took the stage and began to tell a tale of a boy suffering being bullied. Initially, a few children giggled, more from nervousness than anything else, but gained their composure as this young man, confidently, stood his ground and continued with his tale.
His speaking was interrupted by long, choking pauses and, eventually, a stream of tears. By the time he finished, he had commanded the audience in a way that demonstrated several of the lessons I had shared with my students.
The protagonist in his tale was obviously him and everyone cheered and clapped loudly as he exited the stage in tears.
I took that moment to articulate to everyone the amount of heart it takes to stand up and speak out when others choose to remain silent. I lauded this young man as an example of courage that they should follow.
I had never met this young man before but I shared how proud I felt of him and what an honor it was to have listened to his words.
When we finally dispersed the classes for lunch, I watched as one of my students approached the young man and placed his arm around him.
My student walked with his arm around the young man’s shoulder and, as they passed the stage, he looked up at me and said, “Baba… I’ve been through what he is going through and I’m going to help him.”
My heart swelled. This young man stepping up to help another had been one of the most meek in the beginning of my Speaking-Listening Residency, but I had watched him grow in confidence over the months. He had taken the lessons on not succumbing to fear and empowering his own voice to heart.
It is a bittersweet existence, continually walking into and out of the lives of so many people for brief periods of time. I know that, with each group of students I encounter, my life is altered in a good way. I would like to think that I contribute something meaningful to each and everyone that I come into contact with as well.