On pain

Jun. 9th, 2006 05:51 pm
gaudior: (profound)
The people from Teen Empowerment (a program in the high school where I work which hires high school students to do projects to "improve their school climate") came up with what seemed like a fairly daring project this year. They had an English class of students from our high school, E High (urban, almost all students of color and/or recent immigrants, many of them living in housing projects, and all of them dealing with gangs, drugs, shootings, poverty, racism, and a fuckload of other badness on a regular basis), do an exchange program with a class from W High School (almost all White, upper-middle-class, suburban). They exchanged emails for several months, had classroom discussions about social inequality, and then, finally, went to visit each other's schools.

It seems to have gone well-- better than I expected. The W High kids talked about being happily surprised to see "people, not stereotypes," being shocked/impressed with the sorts of things our kids deal with all the time and how they're able to handle it, as well as enjoying the "colorfulness" of the school. I didn't get a sense of whether they learned much that they hadn't been expecting to learn from the experience. But I was more struck with the reactions of our kids. One thing that was something of a relief was that while they did get a clear sense of the unfairness of the situation, they also found things that they appreciated about their school-- the diversity, the energy, and the teachers who care very deeply about them and support them*.

But the other thing that struck me was how struck our kids were by the problems of the kids of W High. They had, they said, assumed that since the W kids were rich and White, they wouldn't have many problems. And indeed, the kids at W don't have to deal with watching their friends get shot, or watching their parents work three jobs to put food on the table, or trying desperately to learn English on the fly quickly enough to pass their classes. But they have problems, our kids said. Problems with parental expectations, and grades-- problems so bad that they do things like pour vodka into water bottles to drink in class to get through the day. One of our teachers said that when the two classes were talking together, some of the W kids were talking about binge drinking, and our teacher realized, looking around the room, that her students had no idea what this meant. She explained it, and they stared at her in confusion, then said, "That's just stupid."

All of which leads me back to a question I had when I, too, was a White, suburban, upper-middle-class kid-- and I looked around and saw how terribly, self-destructively miserable my friends were-- and I didn't understand. How, I wondered, does it hurt so much when life is just not that bad? Of course, I was young and naive and quite emotionally stunted (didn't let myself feel sadness until college, didn't understand depression until after I graduated, I'm only just now learning about anger, and I haven't touched fear yet)... but it's still a question for me. Why is pain like this? Why is it that outside circumstances don't seem to make a damn bit of difference to how much it hurts?

I don't know, but I have a guess. )
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