Nine years ago, when I was teaching at Hoover High School, I received an e-mail just as I was going to head home for the day. It was one of those staff e-mails forwarded by the principal so that she/he can delete it from the inbox and quickly move on to more important matters. The e-mail read something about an institute where I’d be learning about Gandhi and nonviolence. The words that most caught my attention were “nonviolence in thought and action.” There was immediately a call to action from deep within the seat of my soul. That night I sat at my computer to type a statement of purpose that was to be submitted the next day when the application was due. I wrote all night. I found my pain taking over, and as I attempted to write my statement, some of the most painful memories in my life materialized into words.
Like the time I got in a fist fight with my mother. I was so angry at her. I wanted to show her that I was stronger than her; that even though I wasn’t good enough to be loved, I could still stand up for myself. So in that moment, I raged against all the times she left for months at a time, against all the screams and accusations, against the men that had been in and out of her life because, like me, she was also searching for love. My mother and I tossed and tumbled across the living room floor. She was my enemy. I pulled her hair as if I wanted to rip it off of her head and hit her as if to destroy every part of her that had ever hurt me. The next day, I turned in my application and was awarded a fellowship to the institute and a chance to transform my life in ways I could have never imagined.
Even before the institute, as a teacher, I recognized that educators who love unconditionally, support compassionately, and guide patiently are healers. Educators who create safe spaces where students are nurtured, comforted, and encouraged are healers. Educators who see the pain of each child as a gift to hold, as an opportunity to grow in vulnerability and compassion, are healers. For this reason, I knew that the most powerful and transformative education on non-violence for my students would have to begin with my own healing process.
The pain I saw in my students and experienced within inspired me in my movement toward ahimsa. . Many urban youth of color grow up in debilitating, extremely impoverished, and violent environments to the extent that research shows they are twice more likely to suffer PTSD than soldiers who come back from combat. Drawing analogies from Tupac Shakur’s music and poetry, I understand that our urban youth are roses growing in concrete—despite the multiple negative stressors in their lives, they have the grit to rise toward the sun. If we stop and contemplate for a minute what concrete is, we can see that it is void of light and nutrients and full of toxic elements. By no biological measure should a rose be able to survive, let alone sprout, in such inhospitable conditions. The endurance of these young ones proves that they are more than damaged petals.
Through ahimsa, I have come to believe in “critical hope,” what Dr. Duncan-Andrade terms the cure for this toxic stress. Hope in the form of material resources to provide for the basic needs of our children. Hope in the way we live our lives and model healing, grace, love and dignity. Hope in asking ourselves if we are reflective and conscious enough to be on the painful path with our students. And hope in our audacity to believe in them, in our ability to support them in transforming their lives. I became a hope-dealer only when I found hope through my own healing and my own truth, encouraged by the Ahimsa Institute.
Now, every day I look for the courage to bring optimism and motivation to the students I serve, despite their turbid lives, overwhelmed daily by violence, deception, and fear. On the surface, they look like ordinary teenagers walking the halls with their over-exuberant personalities, their secretive language codes, their electronic gadgets, and their mainstream-yet-unique clothing styles—all varnished with a thin coat of coolness. Underneath, however, many have been nicked, scratched, bruised and dented. They have become untamed with anger and resentment percolating inside of them, waiting for any trigger to set off an explosion. Inside their eyes is an unsettling calm—similar to the beauty and destruction found in the eye of a hurricane.
Many of these students do not have anyone to help them deal with the unrest, nor with all of the residual and emotional baggage they carry every day. Some resort to symptomatic behaviors such as gang violence, relationship violence, verbal disrespect, and self-mutilation, creating a web of destruction for themselves, their families, and their communities. Although genetic inheritance, complex brain functions, powerful human needs, and environmental influences all play a role in the behavioral choices that adolescents make, they must learn that they can discover new information which indeed will help guide them to a path of emotional healing and shelter from all of the things that cause so much toxicity in their lives. Students who are empowered through knowledge and skills, and who feel they have control of their lives, are more likely to act in positive constructive ways to prevent much violence and promote peace.
In my classroom I have a responsibility to show students how to use their self-transformation to fight for social justice and change their communities like Gandhi did, to empower them to see that healing alone is not enough to break through the toxic concrete. As a result, I have become very active in the community, constantly connecting my students to the work of activisms and community organizing. I volunteer with Border Angels (an organization that focuses on immigration issues and human rights campaigns), with the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (teaching restorative practice, healing circles, and forgiveness workshops), with prison inmates on healing and transformative power through the Alternative to Violence Project, and with creative actions to support the work of our native brother and sisters in Standing Rock. Using the ideals of Ahimsa, Satyagraha, and Sarvadoya, I engage students in healing practices and community work, inspiring them to be the next generation of change agents. As an English teacher, I allow my students to choose literature that will both help them master academic skills and guide them to an elevated level of self-discovery and healing through the thoughts and actions of the characters.
I am eternally thankful to Dr. Sethia for planting the seed of nonviolence in my heart, and for the grace I have received because of the opportunity to participate in the Ahimsa Center Fellowship. Though my whole prior life had been about violence, she inspired me to sing the song of silence, and in its rhythms find peace, truth and a profound connectedness to all that is. When I attended the Ahimsa Institute, I was a deeply wounded bird, searching for a reason bigger than myself, To Be. This journey of forgiveness, healing and awakening led me to discover the greatest love within myself—a love that allows me to see I am everything, and everything is in me.