Many of us, in order to function day to day, have to contain our most vulnerable self in some sort of container or behind a barrier. We all do it. Our students do it. It’s part of managing to survive as a human being.
I am probably going to reveal a bit more personal information here than may be wise but I want to make an important point. I have been dealing with a lot so far this fall. There are a number of challenging projects that I have had some responsibility for at work that are important to the institution and critical that we get right. This creates stress. Since early August I have been in the process of separating from my husband. Until this past Friday we lived in the same residence in order to clean, paint, pack and ready the house for sale. We also individually sought out new places to live and went through the real estate selling and real estate buying process. Last week I said goodbye to my two beloved dogs who will stay with him.
Work stress, very overwhelming personal/family stress and the need to keep going, meet my professional demands and try and learn something that is challenging my ability to understand new-to-me concepts and my intellectual self-confidence…have been testing my limits.
A few weeks ago I attended a CHY142 Organic Chemistry Supported Learning Group session taking place in the Ryerson Student Learning Centre. The group leader covered material that was just presented to some of us in the lecture earlier in the day – conjugation and hyper-conjugation. I was still trying to understand the material on Acids and Bases for the upcoming quiz. I was following some of the review of conjugation but there was just too many bits that were causing confusion. I just couldn’t get it. My natural reaction was to just stop trying, give up, close my book and leave. I stayed but I could feel the cracks forming. The container that was holding all my emotional shit has thin walls right now. But I need those walls to hold all the stress and emotional response to the stress so that I can function day to day in my work and in the mundane activities of the day, commuting, shopping, laundry, or casual conversations with people who I cross paths with. Just one SLG full of confusing information was the source of a new crack in that container. I had to work hard not to start to cry right there in the room with the other students.
I was able to manage to hold it together until I got back to my office but had I started to cry and people saw me…students, staff, faculty who I know…what would they have thought? We are often quick to respond to emotional behaviour, crying, or some unusual behaviour with judgements about someone’s mental health, or their strength, or their ability to cope.
Many of our students have an overwhelming amount of stress that they contain everyday. I know that as I grew older I got better at containing all that stuff but some of our students haven’t developed their full coping capacity yet. It may be one quiz grade, one really confusing class, one less than friendly response from a staff member, one especially challenging commute, that cracks their container causing all the stuff contained there to come flooding forth. Some will express that with tears and some will express that by lashing out in anger. We don’t know what they are dealing with in their lives, jobs, families and relationships. We don’t know what health related challenges may be impacting their day to day functioning.
They may be dealing an amount of stress or struggle or hurt that would have broken a stronger person sooner. Maybe they are having a really bad day. When a student starts to cry or becomes angry, they don’t need judgement, or unhelpful comments, or to see us turn away…they need support, empathy and human compassion.
We all do.
Sometimes chemistry class is not just chemistry class…sometimes it’s the source of the small crack in the container that on that day has way more in it than it can realistically hold.