“Can you be brave and afraid, articulate and sad, respectful and angry at the same time?”
In Teach It: Mixed Emotions in Civil Rights, educator Callie Feyen asked her students to consider this question. Her class looked for examples of these responses in the book As Fast As Words Could Fly, by Pamela M. Tuck. Set in the 1960’s, an African American student named Mason Steele writes business letters to leaders on behalf of his father’s civil rights group and attends a newly-desegregated school.
I wanted to order the same book and read it with my daughter and son. But it would be a while before it arrived in my mailbox. In the meantime, I thought about starting a spin-off conversation about feelings: How can we constructively move through difficulty, while experiencing strong emotions?
It was Phase One of our morning routine: Ease Into the School Day As Slowly As Possible. As I drank my dark roast with whole milk in the dimly-lit kitchen, I recalled my own experience at school. I knew how easily unexpected conflicts could flare up in the hallways or out on the playground. If an intimidating person zeroed in on me there were some instances where I’d talk my way through it and others where I’d get frightened and freeze up.
What would my kids do in a situation like that? Maybe if they thought ahead about ways to respond when fear sets in, it could strengthen their confidence in a real-life situation.
Time was dwindling, and so was the coffee. I needed to get cracking on Phase Two: Wake the Kids Through Whatever Means Necessary. I poured milk into two cups, plunked in straws, and headed down the dark hallway. If I could just get them to hold onto their drinks in bed, it’d be hard for them to fall back to sleep.
Eventually, my son and daughter emerged through the aqua kitchen entry with Phase Three accomplished: Put On Clothes That Don’t Look Like Pajamas, Even If They Are.
I glanced at the clock on the microwave as we transitioned into Phase Four: Scarf Breakfast. While they gobbled their meal, I’d have time to open up the topic. The kids would probably listen sleepily and maybe chat about it for a couple minutes. Later, if they remembered the talk, we could develop it further.
After mentioning to them that I’d read an interesting article and wondered what they’d think about it, I asked: “Do you guys think it’s possible to be scared and brave at the same time?”
“Of course,” my fourth-grade son immediately answered. “If a burglar broke into our house, and you and Dad were on the ground, and well… you know… I wouldn’t want to, but I would fight him.”
“Oh…” I looked at his hands, not quite as big as mine yet. “Um…” I hadn’t anticipated the kids jumping straight into a home-invasion scenario.
An animated discussion broke out at full volume about where they’d kick or punch a robber in self-defense, complete with demonstrations. (There was some mention of using the stainless steel teapot, in a pinch.)
“Well, I don’t think this will ever happen to you, but if you were in a rare kind of emergency where Dad and I couldn’t help, and someone was trying to hurt you—you run. Run, hide, fight, I think is what they say, but the first thing is to run.”
My second-grade daughter’s eyes opened wider. Milk dripped from her spoon, halted above her bowl: “I would run all the way to Grandma’s house and call 9-1-1! Mom, I would only stop to put on my coat.”
“Honey, if you’re ever in an urgent situation where you have to run out of the house, please don’t stop for your coat, okay? Don’t stop for anything.”
She was out of her chair and all business now. Framed in copper-wire fairy lights with her back against the patio door, she narrowed her eyes. “Okay Mom, watch. I’m gonna show you how fast I would do it. Ready?”
Off she shot, past the table, the soles of her white sock-feet kicking up behind her. She muscled the stiff deadbolt over with two hands, yanked the door open, and sprinted down the driveway, straight to our maple tree (our emergency meetup spot) — coatless. Chilly February air poured through the doorway into the living room. We were all going to remember this talk.
Their conversation continued rapidly as we moved toward the final phase: Don’t Forget. Homework was found to be in place, baby teeth were scrubbed, and little ice packs were crammed into the nooks of metal lunch boxes. Fiddling for my keys, I double-clicked the car locks open. “Let’s go!”
Three seat belts clanged and clicked. My daughter continued, “So we’d run to Grandma’s house. We’d figure out the way there, and I’m pretty sure we’d recognize it. Right?” She looked at her older brother for an answer. I glanced at their little faces in the black frame of my rearview mirror and then back at the road. “Or, you could try ringing our next-door neighbors’ doorbells instead. It’d be quick and easy, and they would help you.”
We bounced with the pop and rattle of the railroad track crossing and a few blocks later successfully pulled into the school lot before the last bell rang. They hoisted backpacks up onto their shoulders, and we said our love-you’s through the window.
I spun the steering wheel counter-clockwise and headed back toward the street. Was that talk even helpful? I hadn’t set out to discuss burglar-evasion strategies. My hope was that they’d glean something practical from our chat that they could actually use. I should try again at dinner.
But maybe I wouldn’t need to. I picture my daughter’s quick sock-feet pounding the cold driveway. I remember my son’s willingness to sort through a worst-fear moment. The discussion didn’t follow my plan, but my kids got to imagine just how strong they could be.
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“I wish the amount I had to give was as vast as my love for this project. More beauty. More joy. More love. This is how we must move through the world.”
—Holly Grantham, donor