Emotion is a Universal Language: The "I Am" Project in Haiti
Year started with The "I Am" Project: 2014
Neighborhood: Z'Oranje, Haiti
Principal: Jason Potten
Thoughts swirl in my mind as the clouds below. I watch as the landscape unfolds through the plane's window. My eyes take in Haiti as a grand, yet somehow delicate work of art. Its majestic mountains ripen to vibrant shades of green and red, and rise from turquoise waters that lap silently at sandy shores. I am nervous, and yet I feel oddly serene. I have come he
When I arrive at Ecole Nouvelle Zoranje, I am first led through the primary school, where groups of young children wearing bright yellow uniform shirts and smiling faces file out towards their lunch hour in la cantine, the lunch room. I am swept up by their openness, their positive energy, their eagerness to reach out and touch my hand. Their voices ring out in a chorus of Bonjou! Bonjou! Hello! Miss! Hello! Deputy director Blaise-François Aridou and Project Director Tatiana Liautaud lead me through the campus starting with the primary school - I am introduced to bright classrooms, where student artwork and daily lessons are posted on the walls.
Although simple, the message emerging from every classroom is clear - here we nurture education. As Blaise leads me through the rest of the school, I get a chance to meet some of the teachers and support staff, and I feel connected to their mission - we speak of stronger students, a more unified community, and new ways that the kids and help and support each other - and themselves. The campus sprawls over land where students are taught to grow their own food, participate in teamwork activities, and support each other through their education. Each classroom has about 25 students, and each one of them is taught to listen, learn, and respect.
Prior to starting the class, I have a chance to speak with the Principal, the Nurse, The Athletic teachers and to get a sense of how the students view the stress in their lives, and how it shows up during school. Blaise gives me a detailed and informative history of Haiti - through the eyes of the people who work tirelessly to unite it. Blaise tells me that hardship in Haiti predates the earthquake, and that families struggle to survive, and often kids are left to fend for themselves - both physically and emotionally. I hear of the fears that young girls have, the violence that these students know as part of their lives, and the stresses unique to living in a culture that has known so much oppression and poverty.
As we speak, I feel connected to the kids - though I don't know them, and they have grown up in ways vastly different than I have - I connect to how fear, violence, and struggle work to shape their view of themselves, and how they must exist in the world. Though the paths that have brought us to this moment of meeting cross different landscapes, we share an undeniable truth - we are human: we feel, we need, and we grow through connections that nurture us.
I am going to teach my lessons in French, a language that connects to my childhood, but that I have not yet used to express these tools. When I step into my first classroom, everything I know about teaching that I have seen in New York and Philadelphia stays outside the door. I face a class of faces both eager to learn and poised to challenge what I have brought. I notice a palpable difference between the younger kids I met in the morning, and these students sitting in front of me now. Although they are 11 and 12 years old, these children have grown much faster than their years. I sense their apprehension as I start to speak of emotion, connecting to the body, and meeting our needs. At this stage, it is simply not what their days are filled with. At this stage, they are learning the skills they need to survive.
As I do in every class, I take a moment to meet every person in the room - learning his or her name, age, and one thing that makes them unique. I learn that many of the boys enjoy playing sports, that some of the girls like to dance and sing, and that a few of them even enjoy writing, drawing - one shy young woman who sat in the back of the second class shared with me that she writes her own poetry. We are curious about each other. I find myself being more open with them about my struggles and my past than I typically am with students their age.
They ask, How did I learn to teach all this stuff?
The "I Am" Project tools evolved from the practices I learned in my own healing journey. I have spent the past 8 years rebuilding my body by getting to know myself again on several levels. Physical and emotional trauma made me fearful of the world around me and mistrustful of my own mind and body. I began to heal by getting to know my thoughts, emotions, and accepting my body's basic needs as okay. When I connected physical movement, fitness, and strength training, I noticed how connecting with my body and working to get stronger allowed me to open space for meditation and reflection. I saw how the combination of practices helped me feel calmer and in that calm, I was able to make the necessary choices that helped me maintain my recovery and continue to heal. They respond by wanting to learn more, try more, practice more.
It is the meditation that changes the energy in the room - as it does in every classroom I have visited. With our eyes closed and our attention turned inward, the students feel safe noticing their breath and exploring their internal worlds. Their palms are open - they are willing to receive what messages their own spirits have for them through their bodies. I guide them through to listen, to ask their body how it feels, to take themselves to a place where they feel most strong, calm, and secure. I ask them to become witnesses to their own ways of thinking, feeling, being. We imagine a cloudy sky, and with every exhale, we clear out a worry.
How many of you take time to check in with yourselves?Not one hand goes up.
What did that feel like for you?
and they answer,
Soulageant (calming), Relaxant (relaxing), Bien (good).
The sentiment echoes in both classes, as students emerge from meditation noticeably calmer, more open, and more eager to participate. They are less taken aback by the fact that I let them call out, that they can say how they feel.
Now, when I talk about emotions, they feel safer - they can share about feeling afraid (la peur), feeling sad (la tristèsse), and feeling angry (la fâche, la colère).
We talk about where these emotions live in our bodies, and what kind of stresses trigger them in us. We talk about violence, about the earthquake, and about living with so much uncertainty. Slowly but surely hand continue to go up and they start to share about their own experiences with these emotions and that no, they aren't aware of how their bodies respond.
We talk about rhythms - the rhythm of breathing, the heart beat, and how each one varies when we live in different emotions. With egg shakers to create the rhythm, they tap out their heart beat in fear, in sadness, in stress - and eventually in calm, in rest, and in moments of joy.
I notice the moments that I see in every class - when the tool starts to connect, when they feel safe enough to share, when they realize that they can do this every day.
Some still stare at me with blank faces, and some are already hardened by what they have seen in their lives - violence, fear, death. They sit silently and absorb the lesson, participating less than the other students but still connected, wanting to know more.
We go through scenarios where they could use these tools, and I ask them if they think they'd be okay with it. They're not sure, but they want to try.That's all it takes - the willingness to try. Change of any kind takes practice and dedication, and these tools slip so easily into every day situations that they are easy to remember, accessible to practice.
At the end of each class, I ask them
How do you feel now?
plus fort (stronger), plus calme (calmer), contente (happy).
Teaching at Ecoule Nouvelle Zoranje has deepened, for me, the mission behind my work and my own personal journey of healing. Never have I felt both further from and closer to my own humanity than I did while working with these students. Can a simple breathing exercise, a simple meditation and moment of reflection truly make a difference in these children's every day experience? I can still hear the voices of the students as they shared about their home life, their daily worries, and their own personal battles. From my own battles, I know that taking small moments to connect my self and access my emotions has created momentous change. From getting to know our basic needs - thirst, hunger, sleep, comfort - to diving deeper into the nuances in our emotions, having the ability to connect is what makes us human.