By the time I was in third grade, I’d already attended five different elementary schools and lived in four different cities. In the middle of kindergarten, I took a few weeks off school to travel cross country with my mom and newborn sister, hoping to reunite with my father and save my parents’ marriage. In the years following, I watched my parents’ marriage dissolve right before my eyes, and my father hastily remarry a woman I hardly knew.
My early elementary years were unstable, scary, and emotionally draining, to say the least. As far as I knew, none of my teachers had much of an inkling as to what was going on. The thing is, they probably didn’t suspect that my world was falling apart. I was really good at keeping a brave face. Always a people pleaser, I was able to maintain good behavior and decent enough grades.
But inside I was falling apart, and began to develop a severe anxiety and panic disorder that would rear its ugly head big time in high school, where I developed phobias that made it hard for me to function. And still, hardly anyone knew what was going on—even as my grades began to plummet, and I hurriedly graduated high school early without taking the SATs, and with no real plans of attending college.
Thankfully, things did work out in the end for me, and I figured out a way to get a college education, find a career, and succeed. But I always think of the fact that there were many painful experiences happening in my life outside school that virtually no one knew about but which affected every aspect of my experience in school.
I suppose all of this is why I was brought to tears the other day when I saw a Facebook post a teacher shared about an activity she’d performed with her middle school students on the first day of school. The Oklahoma teacher, Karen Loewe, called it “The Baggage Activity” and instructed her students to write down something that troubles them or weights heavy on their hearts.
The notes were completely anonymous and then were read aloud by Loewe’s students. Students touched upon subjects like “suicide, parents in prison, drugs in their family, being left by their parents, death, cancer, losing pets,” wrote Loewe.
They were so real, raw, and honest, that the entire class was profoundly moved.
“The kids who read the papers would cry because what they were reading was tough,” Loewe shared. “The person who shared (if they chose to tell us it was them) would cry sometimes too. It was an emotionally draining day, but I firmly believe my kids will judge a little less, love a little more, and forgive a little faster.”
After the post was written, Loewe assured readers that the kids who’d shared anything troubling, such as abuse, were being properly attended to.
For Loewe, who has left the bag of notes hanging on her classroom door, the point of this exercise was to set the tone for the school year. She wanted her students to know that her classroom was a safe haven, that she and her students will be there for each other—and that her students can leave these troubles at the door, where will they will be waiting for them.
“This bag hangs by my door to remind them that we all have baggage,” she wrote. “We will leave it at the door. As they left I told them, they are not alone, they are loved, and we have each other’s back.”
I don’t know about you, but I really could have used this sort of reminder when I was growing up. School was solely about learning whatever was taught, doing one’s work, behaving properly, and focusing on some vague future that didn’t feel one bit real.
Numerous studies have shown that kids’ socio-emotional lives are just as important, if not more so, than their academic ones, and that nurturing kids’ inner lives actually improves their grades. It would behoove teachers and schools to focus on this as much as they do on all the other aspects of schooling.
After all, how can you expect a child to sit up straight and listen at school when their world at home is completely falling apart? How can a child concentrate on a math worksheet when they are worried that there isn’t going to be food on the table that night?
We must address our kids’ inner lives, because without that, there is no way we can truly help them succeed in school, or elsewhere.
Of course, this doesn’t mean prying or forcing them to talk about something that they are not ready to. But schools should invest in more counseling services, teachers should be taught to look for warning signs, and most of all, an atmosphere of emotional sensitivity and safety should be fostered whenever possible.
I know teachers like Loewe aren’t the only ones out there. I had a few incredible teachers who were able to see me as a whole person, and allowed me to express the inner working of my life in safe and healing ways. My sons have had teachers like that too.
So let’s thank the educators who go the extra mile to make sure our kids have that sanctuary to open up and feel heard. And let’s encourage an educational culture that values personal growth as much as academic success.