Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sarah - a lesson in understanding

I recall one of my students. Her name, we shall say, was Sarah. Sarah came to my gr. 8 creative writing classroom from a foster home. There are many studies that illustrate the biological, psychological, physiological, mental and emotional benefits of writing, but this one student, Sarah, showed me what it means to put your thoughts to paper.

Her middle years were spent with her father. A strong man, a contractor who treated her with dignity and respect. Sarah was a tough, strong, essentially not a pretty girl, but she had an inner strength that I saw from within.


With the other teachers, Sarah was belligerent. She was late to class. But I gave her choices. I told her how happy I was to see her, even late! I recall my father telling me about his math teacher who would say, 'Just on time!' no matter whether they were 5, 10 or 15 minutes late! She was accepted in my class. Her strength of character did not frighten me, as it did others. Mental health issues are not ones about which we should be frightened. We must understand them.


Sarah had had a good life. She helped her father with his contracting work. She helped him plow driveways, driving the pick-up truck, as they do in rural Canada. Only 14 or 15, she had some sense of control of her life. She was competent, capable. She had a purpose and a family. She had dignity.
Until her father died suddenly of a heart attack.


When she came to me she had been kicked out of her mother and step-mother's house and placed in foster care. She simply didn't fit into her mother's life; her persona was too big, her strength of purpose too strong, and she lost her rock and her pillow in her father.


She had made a few unsuccessful attempts at suicide, and had then swung over to another method to relieve her pain, cutting herself.



Entering in October, she was an outsider, even in a fairly white, Protestant/Catholic community. With kids who had grown up together in either the bedroom communities outside of Ottawa, or on rural farms and towns. She knew no one, except the kids in her foster home.

By this time we were working on a poetry unit. Some teachers find it hard to teach, others do not. I fall into the latter category. I taught a poetry style, had them try a few, and then collect poems they liked in that style, or write their own. This gave them some choice and freedom.

Sarah shone. And she gained some respect. All of her poems were about her late father. The pain she suffered she managed to share with the others. I assuaged her pain, and helped them understand where she came from. At the end of the unit we put our poetry assignments into a folder and bound them. Sarah's were deep, wrenching difficult poems to read. They came from her heart and her soul. In some way, I think she was finally honouring her father's life and this lifted her up.

I so loved this young lady. As things go, I changed schools, she moved on to the high school.

One day, I was reading the paper and spotted her photo. She was the feature story on a panel that was planned to talk about teen suicide. They showed her physical scars, but could not possibly show her emotional scars: rejected by a mother and step-father, her anger breaking the family bond.

I was so happy she could share her story with a wider audience. I met her one day, downtown, at a rock concert. I was between husbands, my kids were with their dad, and she was there with some friends. Covered with tatoos, as well as the marks of her pain, she was happy to see me. We hugged. It was the last I saw of her.

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