Candice C. Carter, P h.D.
Throughout the first semester of my new teacher education course, I had a student, Angel*, who gave me consistent feedback on how the assignments were working, or not, for her and her classmates. I appreciated the opportunity to hear a student’s perspective of my instruction in the new course. After the course ended, Angel continued to drop by my office to share teaching resources she found. I was happy to hear her instructional ideas and proud of her ability to continue her learning beyond my course requirements. Her high level of achievement in and beyond my course, as well as in others, made it evident she was motivated to be the best teacher she could, besides a mother and many other roles she had. When the communications from her ceased in December, I guessed she was so too busy to stop by my office with the latest instructional resource she borrowed to show me.
Angel had been busy --- trying to cope with the sudden diagnosis of her brain tumor, as well as finish her classes around all her medical tests in preparation for surgery. Not knowing of her crisis, I couldn’t offer to her the support of my own recovery from a removal of a tumor in my head while I was starting my Ph.D. program. Healing through listening to peaceful music, instead of taking the prescribed pain medication after surgery, and visions of accomplishing my future goal of researching peace processes aided my recovery. I learned an additional outcome of positive visioning; healing.
Late that December I was across the country dealing with a different crisis when I received e-mail from Angel’s grandmother stating that Angel’s son Ariel* had died suddenly in an accident while playing on his bed. The Boy Scout scarf Ariel was proudly wearing caught on the post of his bunk bed and strangled him. Although I still knew nothing yet of Angel’s simultaneous medical crisis, I felt so much agony from her loss as a mother. My current problem of property destruction changed its status in my perspective to a mere inconvenience and I thought how can I complain about my losses when it isn’t the loss of my child? I responded to the e-mail that I would like to help in any way I could, while wondering what would be most helpful to Angel? I later discovered the medical crisis Angel faced, and the cancer diagnosis of her father, her only living parent, with a year to live. I thought to myself, how in the world can I help Angel through this terrible time? What will transform her trauma? I couldn’t see a path for her peace in the face of simultaneous crises.
When traumatized Angel was brought by a neighbor to my office the next month for a visit, I had ready a collection of food and funds to help her through the difficult time while she faced; loss of phone and possibly housing from lack of money after burying her son. She was so depressed her doctors had postponed her head surgery knowing she might not survive in her delicate condition. Yet, with all the problems Angel was facing, her light of learning still flickered.
“Dr. Carter, teachers don’t know how to handle death and they need training!” She explained that Ariel’s teacher decided after his death to put away everything about him at his school, including the award he had just received there, so that his classmates would not be reminded of him. Angel anguished over the idea of forgetting as a response to loss. Recognizing that this was a step on her path to inner peace, I wondered if I should simply acknowledge the inexperience or lack of training of Ariel’s teacher, and many others, with trauma education? Or, would my request of her assistance in a future project for teacher training be something to help her believe in her own future? Could this student in great grief who saw death looming all around her plan how to bring peace to others? Was motivation to improve the social world of others a path to her recovery? Remembering how a focus on a healthy future had sustained me during my disease crises, I took a chance and asked her to help me. “Angel, you have such important knowledge about helping teachers and children respond to death. As soon as you recover this year, would you please join me in preparing teacher training for trauma response?” Angel paused for a while, dried the continual stream of tears flowing from her eyes, then agreed to help me. Before she left my office, she even offered a few suggestions for what we could do in such training.
Days, weeks, and then months passed with no word from Angel or her family. Her phone was cut off, her e-mail service stopped, and she was hospitalized with no communication to anyone at my university about where to find her! To keep my own inner peace while worrying about her, I began collecting death-response information to share with teachers. Whether or not Angel would survive, I planned to honor her and the need she recognized for local teacher training.
Just when I was about to clear my full schedule for time to find Angel wherever she was, she appeared at my office door. She had survived her brain surgery and subsequently made her way back to me. There she stood, with regained color in her face and a present for me in her arms. As a gift of gratitude, she presented to me a book about monsters that her son Ariel had read. She apologized for it being used by Ariel, instead finding a new gift, but trusted that I would use it. I was so honored by the gift of her presence and Ariel’s book; it was all I could do to not drop salty tears on it. Angel also carefully gave to me a beautiful American Indian talking stick, which is used to help people listen during times of conflict.
It was clear that Angel worked with her trauma monsters and transformed her perspective of death as an enemy that surrounded her. She recognized those perceived enemies as sources of learning and development. Before her visit ended, Angel shared with me that Ariel wouldn’t want her to let his death ruin their plans for her teaching career. I was so glad that this dedicated teacher-in-training had summoned the ability to recognize the development opportunities her traumas provided. May we all recognize the value of learning from our perceived enemies, whether they are experiences or people. Listening during trauma illuminates a path to peace.
* Names have been changed.