Some things have clicked into place in the last few days. I have had in my mind lately that other people aside from me have the same issues with trauma, and they also experience modes in the way I do and C does. My mother experienced those modes, and actually I know them. I recognize them in the people around me, instinctively, but not always consciously. So do my students with traumatic backgrounds. When I am in a mode, they know it and they react to it. I react to their modes.
I was thinking about this, because I have one student who has a lot of trouble with anger. He failed last year, and this is his second year in my class. He has failed quite a few years. He is in fourth grade and 13 years old. Anyway, I taught him last year. I know him fairly well, and we have a good relationship, but he needs a lot of help calming down sometimes. The hard part is that in Country X, somehow, I cannot seem to control the behaviour of other students as well as I do in the United States. This boy gets angry, and it’s hard to get the other students to stop attacking him so that he can feel safe again. The majority of students have the idea that when someone is out of control you attack them until they go into freeze mode and lapse into silence. They don’t have a concept that if you leave someone alone, they can calm themselves down. They don’t have an idea that if you remove yourself from what is upsetting you, you can calm down. They don’t have an idea that people can self-regulate.
And it’s sometimes difficult. It’s really, really difficult sometimes to get students to stop attacking each other. I am stunned sometimes at the delusionality of the people who live here. This is a terrifically violent culture. It is emotionally violent and it is physically violent. The difference between here and the gang-dominated school I used to teach in lies mainly in the lack of weapons available, and also the attitude towards proper authority. My previous school was anti-social: socially recognized authority figures were in conflict with politically recognized authority figures. This is not like that.
Nonetheless, I know this boy has problems with anger and I know also that he has trauma in his background, because his orphaned cousin lives with him, and has complementary issues. Not so much anger, but fear and inattentiveness.
So yesterday someone stole his new mechanical pencil, and it finally emerged that this was why he was behaving in the way that he was. I watched him in class though, pondering how to help him and how to help his classmates, whom he took every opportunity to verbally abuse and threaten. I realized that’s how C used to feel when I went to hostel, and she was in that emotional place of being very angry and not being able to sit still. It’s the same phenomenon, and VP Ma’am goes through the same thing. She went through it this morning. It’s in this state that people with childhood trauma go through, where they cycle rapidly through fear, rage, and the desire to reach out for safety. In this mode, they become very punitive. They feel dangerous to be around. This boy scares his classmates when he is in this mode, VP Ma’am scares me. When I am in this mode, my students are scared, and the ones with trauma in their backgrounds enter the same state, and it causes me all kinds of problems in the classroom. It probably causes me problems my colleagues who don’t have trauma backgrounds never really have to deal with to quite the same level, because they don’t experience this mode, and their affect doesn’t scare every single child with an abuse history into acting out.
I was thinking about how this affected him. So, imperfections are triggers. I am not good enough. I will be attacked for being imperfect. That’s the starting place. He loaned his pencil to someone who set it down on the table, and then this boy went to the toilet. Someone then picked it up and stole it. The girl last using it has been in my class for two years. She would never steal anything, and I know that. But someone else did. And this boy very likely thought, “I was careless with my pencil. I shouldn’t have given it to someone to use and then gone to the toilet.” Maybe not consciously, but somehow, I think he must have thought that. Imperfection is hugely triggering to anyone from a trauma background.
Then he made an accusation at the girl who had it last, and the response of the other students in defense of her and in response to his anger made him feel attacked. He was primed to see attack and he felt attacked. He wanted my help and support, he felt attacked and ready to fight back, and deep down he felt afraid because he had been careless with his pencil. I moved the girl away from him who was most vociferously counter-attacking. I had to let the girl he was accusing stop crying, which took more than a class period.
Finally, by the end of the second period, everyone was calm again at last, and by then I had taken this boy outside the class to talk to twice. I had asked him if he needed to sit in the front near me, and he declined, and I also found out the source of the problem. Mainly, it does actually help him to be near me. I knew when I took him outside that there wasn’t necessarily anything to say. He just needed support.
But it made it click in, when I am angry and struggling with my anger, I feel to the students exactly like he does, and for the students with trauma backgrounds this is terrifying. It is terrifying even if I don’t attack them or punish them. They recognize that emotional state, and it’s the emotional state which includes a desire to punish other people. It means I am trying to teach maths while the 8 or 10 students with trauma are cycling between fight or flight.
Yeah, no wonder teaching is hard for me some days. No wonder when VP Ma’am is in this state of cycling between rage and fear and the desire to reach out, I feel very inconvenienced that now I will have to deal with my own issues right before heading to class, and usually I can’t. Usually it’s too intense to calm down from, and it absolutely ruins the next little bit of the day and sometimes the entire day. I am not operating in a vacuum, and it’s never just my own issues at work. Other people have the same issues. My students have them, and although we are not related and didn’t grow up together, there is this kind of trauma bond reaction going on, where the actual emotional state of the other person serves as a trigger to trauma reactions.