Sense of Belonging

The assignment for my Spanish class over the weekend was to watch El Norte, a 1983 film about a brother and sister who are forced to flee Guatemala and head to the US. It is a very realistic film. I rate it a three boxer as far as emotional wringing.

There are a lot of scenes that stood out to me. Obviously, as a Socialist, the opening series of scenes brought to mind how the US created a puppet dictatorship in Guatemala all for the sake of a banana company and I recalled how people were killed and tortured and just plain disappeared at the hands of the US backed dictators.

There were some scenes, thought, that might have been missed had I not experienced the things I’ve experienced in my life. One of those was when the sister, Rosa, is in the English class she is taking with her brother, Enrique, after they get into the US. Enrique has decided to go out to a party with his friends instead of going to the class with Rosa. In the scene, the teacher is asking Rosa where Enrique is. It sounds as if she is truly inquiring about the well-being of Rosa’s brother. I mean, it’s obvious by the way Rosa looks that she is worried. Alas, the teacher is not. It is simply an exercise in communication and she quickly moves on to the next student.

This was 1983. Teachers hadn’t, I don’t think, come to the point where they were actively trying to more deeply communicate with students. That movement hadn’t hit yet. I had the occasional teacher or school nurse or administrator try to worry about me and listen to me, but they did nothing about what was going on. At that time, it seemed the idea was that it was enough to listen. I blame Freud.

When I returned to school a few years ago, I really didn’t understand this at all. When a professor would inquire, I’d give them all the facts. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have a whole lot of teachers who were like that. But there was one place that was. Work.

When I first began working at my job, this touchy-feely stuff was what we were all about. It was supposed to help us gain a sense of belonging. We were supposed to carry it over to our students. However, some of the questions we were forced to answer at work meetings were really inappropriate. I’m not really sure how someone who was supposedly as traumatized as my boss claims to have been thought that any of these were OK. Many of the answers were often retraumatizing for me. And, of course, she threw these questions out, forced us to answer, and those of us who had experienced trauma were left to deal with the fallout completely alone.

The questions, we were told, were supposed to help us feel as if we belong with the group. They were supposed to help us feel connected to others. But they were meaningless. I’m not sure even now what sorts of answers she expected from the questions, but maybe she thought we all knew the code. Maybe she thought that all of us were whole and we knew what was socially acceptable. Maybe she, and others who do the same, think that way because they were fortunate enough to figure it out.

Sadly, most of us do not know the code. We do not know how to build healthy connections. We are too broken. Even as healed as I would view myself now, I still don’t know how to do the things teachers often demand of me on a personal level. I was never taught.

There needs to be an understanding in education that if you are going to try to create a sense of belonging, you need to be ready to deal with people whose lives have been nothing but trauma. Because when you claim to want to connect to these people, and they come back with things you don’t want to face, you only make them feel more alienated when you finally turn them away because it’s too much for you.

In a very real sense, I do believe that it would be best if we just went back to very formal and structured education where the teachers were Professor or Mr. or Mrs. Because this experiment with creating a sense of belonging is a complete failure. Unless the schools want to spend good money on expert psychiatrists to be available for every student on campus, these questions and exercises that open deep wounds in trauma victims are a cruel and sick joke that only leads to more problems.