Hearing the inner voice helps

Hearing the inner voice helps

In a racially diverse circle of trust, there was a white middle school teacher, Janet, who sat through the first retreat in silence, looking angry and distracted

In a racially diverse circle of trust, there was a white middle school teacher, Janet, who sat through the first retreat in silence, looking angry and distracted.

No one invaded Janet by asking her what was wrong or evaded her by pretending she was not there. Instead, people went on with their dialogue while remaining present and open to her, waiting for her soul to appear.

At the start of the second retreat, as the group explored a poem that touched on racial issues, Janet's grievances began to spill out.

She was having a terrible time in her classroom, and it was all the fault of "those students," and all of "those students" were black.

But no one invaded Janet by challenging her racism or evaded her by pretending she was not there — this is the fact that there were a number of teachers in the circle, black and white, who must have been deeply upset about what their colleague was saying. Instead, everyone continued to wait for Janet's soul.

Sometimes Janet's grievances were received in respectful silence before someone said something else about the poem.

Occasionally, someone responded to her with an honest, open question, giving her an opportunity to explore the situation — "What first happened that made you feel this way?" or "What do you find most difficult about so-and so?"— though Janet almost always used such questions, not to explore, but to expand on her complaints.

From time to time, other teachers spoke of binds they had gotten into with their students, and a couple of black teachers told stories of their own struggles with students who happened to be white.

These stories were told, not in Janet's judgment, but as honest testimony to the fact that we are all in this together. And one story involved such a hilarious moment of cultural "crossed wires" that this heavy topic became a little lighter for a while.

Janet struggled with her demons during the second and third retreats. Then, at the fourth retreat, something remarkable happened.

Speaking through tears, Janet told the group that after the last retreat, she had become appalled at what she had heard herself saying.

She had resolved to build a better relationship with her most difficult student and had learned about her life that turned some of her anger to compassion.

Her classroom troubles had diminished as she acted on the insight that a big part of the problem came from inside of her.

There are times, of course, when we need to confront scourges such as racism head-on. But confrontation often falls short of transformation: some people are coerced into short-lived changes of heart, while others cling more tightly to the errors of their ways.

Janet's transformation was deep and abiding because it came within, made possible by a community that trusted her inner teacher and allowed her to hear that voice.

Parker J Palmer

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