“pain upon pain”

I attended a conference recently for work about helping youth from foster care, a topic that I am very passionate about. Part of my journey learning about this issue is understanding, as one young woman pointed out, that “it’s not like the movies.” People end up in foster care for different reasons, and being “in” foster care doesn’t always mean there’s a dramatic home removal. Often these kids bounce back and forth between their families and the child welfare system.

One of the keynote speakers at this conference I attended was Dr. Steve Perry. He’s known for his in-your-face antics and real talk with youth and families who are beyond troubled. He got into his groove during his address one afternoon telling a story from his work and I listened as he said “We pile pain upon pain and call it a family.”

In that moment I started to remember the stories from teaching that weren’t like the movies, either. The months and months of hard work and bending over backwards, trying every trick in the book only to find that your classes did not get the test scores you wanted (or needed). Struggling with students (and sometimes colleagues) all year only to go home for the summer with unresolved conflict. And whether we’d like to admit it or not, we don’t all look like Hilary Swank.

And I remembered that first year of teaching with that student who I thought was a terror. He said and did rude, mean, evil things. I tried to be patient but he took advantage. I tried to be firm but he acted worse. I thought “he’s just acting out because he’s academically insecure,” but that wasn’t it either. When I exhausted all my options, I sat down with the headmaster. We called him in for a conversation, where he showed slightly more humility than the previous weeks in my classroom.

And then the headmaster called his father.

When his father came to pick him up, everything changed. My memory of that day came back suddenly and in slow motion. A father yelling at his 8th grade son as he dragged him out of the school building. My unruly, surly, rude, evil student transformed into a terrified, embarrassed child with his head hung low, unwilling to make eye contact with anyone. They got into a pick-up truck and sped away.

I have no conclusion to this story, no happy ending, no clever quip that makes everything ok because I learned something valuable.

We pile pain upon pain and call it a family.