I was teaching seventh grade in a violent, impoverished neighborhood in Philadelphia with a challenging, often defiant population. It was an understaffed school with under-resourced classrooms filled by students who had experienced trauma.
One night, I lay awake in bed after a long day, trying to slow my thoughts and drift off into the calm of sleep, but my mind could not let go of class. Every time I closed my eyes, I heard screams and saw fights. My breaths got tighter, my back became stiff, and my joints cramped. Before I knew it, I had flu-like chills coming over me. I knew about somatization, but had never experienced it so palpably, so intensely, coursing through my bones.
I learned about trauma earning a master’s degree in education and working with underprivileged kids in foster care and juvenile justice. Many came from poor or abusive homes. I gained insight into the effects of trauma, but understanding trauma’s vicious multigenerational cycle, and broader social cycle, isn’t easily done through literature or even practice. I only fully realized the true challenge of breaking the cycle of trauma as I felt my students’ traumas invading my body.
In school, the behavioral symptoms of trauma were so pervasive that teaching became nearly impossible. Students refused to sit, threw things, fought, and chased each other around the classroom and into the hallways. The yelling and screaming was almost deafening. It looked like a discipline deficit, but I knew from my education on the social manifestations of trauma that it was really a comfort deficit, created by the expected safety and calm of school.
Trauma has well-studied effects on biochemistry. Traumatized individuals maintain higher levels of stress hormones even in safe environments. This makes them both more likely to perceive threats where there are none and more able to handle real threats with relative acumen.
Traumatized teenagers may feel more comfortable when chaos increases, so picking fights is a safer routine than sitting quietly and learning effective reading strategies (which, in their minds, means idly awaiting something awful to befall them). With 20 such children in a 200-square-foot classroom with only one teacher, the adult ideal of a safe educational space is cast off for the comfort of cruel, child-like chaos.
Of course, I do not naturally embody this sense of comfort. I had to learn to accept a certain level of chaos rather than fight it. I had to adopt chaos as normalcy to operate within it and, in order to do so, I had to experience trauma in my body.
Ironically, as I became more comfortable in chaos, I did less to make school safe. To preserve my sense of normalcy and report to work each day, I had to normalize chaos and eschew basic standards of safety and comfort. Every day I confronted traumas of many people at once and each day the appropriate response seemed more elusive.
Accepting a measure of chaos meant accepting the students and their traumas as my own, sparing myself the stress of a Sisyphean task: to establish order. By doing so, I gave up on offering them an alternative to their anxiety-provoking home environments. Education was an incidental casualty.
I walked away with many questions about the milieus where caregivers face victims of trauma. How does one address a room full of traumas without enduring some of their own? If we endure the traumas of others, what limits are put on our ability to curb the cycle of trauma?
Trauma spares nothing in its path. If we are not careful, it may even claim the mission to treat it and those who take up its cause.
Stewart Rudy is a high school teacher in California who completed his graduate studies at Penn.