Tears and self-discovery

I wish I could say that today was the first time I'd made a student cry, but that would be far from the truth.  The truth is, I teach young kids and teenage girls -- and there's no telling what will set off the emotions of either demographic.  You learn to live with a fair amount of guilt.  Once, I was playing a game in which dynamic words are spoken at their intended volume -- "pianissimo" is whispered, while "fortissimo" is shouted loudly.  I got to "forte" and my student, a 4-year-old boy, burst into tears.  I think he'd never heard me raise my voice to that level before!  (His mom and I probably didn't help the situation by laughing, which we just couldn't help doing.)

Today, just as unintentionally, I made someone cry.  It started out as a great class: we finished up some letters we were sending out to potential donors (we're looking to publish the school's literary magazine in full color this year, and that's an expensive goal) and then, I told the students, "We're going to do something fun."  I explained the Roundtable Influences project to them, and I could see their brains leap into action almost before I had finished explaining the parameters.  I gave them a few minutes to brainstorm, and then they shared their ideas.

When I asked one student which family members she had listed, she said, "None of my family members have really influenced me."  I could have argued that point ("Really?!"), but I let it go and said instead, "Okay.  Who's on your list, then?"

She began talking about a friend of hers, a boy, who seemed to be a pretty negative person.  He read her blog from time to time, she said, and he would always criticize her writing.  The other students and I were surprised, as she is really a gifted and articulate writer -- she could churn out dactyllic hexameter in her sleep.  "He just tells me what he would have done differently, and he tells me when I write stuff that's dumb and doesn't matter."

Too late, I saw the telltale signs -- widening eyes and a shaky voice, and hair allowed to fall in front of her face as a protective shield.  The classmate sitting next to her put a hand on her arm.  "It's okay."

She shook her head.  "I'm not upset about this, I'm just tired and this is a really negative day.  I don't know why I'm crying."

I did what I always do when a student cries: I encourage them without gushing and move on, so they can have some time to recover.  It's very hard not to throw my arms around them in sympathy, but I've found that too much friendliness can embarass them, besides being professionally inappropriate -- not to mention that it usually results in even more tears.  So I told her simply that she was an amazing writer who did wonderful work, and that although some critique can be helpful, too much can be devastating.  I encouraged her to remember all the positive things said by her fellow students and me, and not to let one negative person shape her opinion of herself.  Then I got her some tissues and moved on to the next student.

Once everyone had shared, though, and the students had gone back to their computers to work, she was still crying at the conference table.  I excused myself and steered her across the hall to the library, where we could have a little more privacy.  "I'm so sorry for upsetting you with this writing assignment, " I said, "but I think something more is going on.  Can you tell me what's wrong?"

She looked up at me through her hair-curtain.  "I don't know."  Her voice broke.  "I really don't know why I'm so upset."

"Well, you're a woman," I said.  "You're allowed to say that."  This made her laugh, just a little.

"I don't know what to tell you," I said.  "I wish I could say that this will all straighten itself out.  But the truth is that you'll struggle with this for your whole life.  This assignment is pretty personal; it asks you to think about who you are and why you're that way, and those can be scary questions.  Don't feel too bad if sometimes they make you cry."

I told her she could sit there as long as she needed to; she crept back to class about fifteen minutes later and continued to write. I'd like to see what she has to say tomorrow.

UPDATE: Interesting article about crying and catharsis, and whether the two are related.  Check it out!