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  • Writer's pictureKatie Lane-Karnas

Flattening the Curve on School Trauma

Vermont summer field with a sculpture installation of many red window and chair frames mounted in the air (on stakes); a huge rainbow rises above them
The curve can take us way outside our windows of tolerance

As a culture, we have been dissociating from the pain of childhood for so long, in many ways.

When my husband and I kept our children out of school — stopped permitting into our home many of the central tenets of schooling — we started to re-associate with the perspective of a young child. With the pain of being deeply unheard. With the pain of being alone, separated from your people when upset happened. The pain of knowing the adults holding all the power of your survival can use physical violence against you; can withhold food or love. The pain of being moved from family to school institution, where a few adults can force their ideology on your mind. This is a lot to hold.

When we moved our thinking out of school and kept the kids home, we noticed the wide distance between our kids’ life and a schooled life. As much as it seemed at first, that gap grew exponentially with time. I think homeschool parents, from their vantage point originating in the system themselves and now outside the system with their children, often have this in common. That is, seeing wide distances of behavior — of self knowledge, of genuine interest, of expressing unafraid deep thoughts and feelings to adults, of facility in being with people of all ages and experiences — between kids who go to school and kids who don’t. There is absolutely no chance I could recognize this while I was still teaching, before I had witnessed it firsthand.

“Little things” imposed on children in the school system become unacceptable. Raising your hand to go to the bathroom? Taking a test and getting grades? Sitting for hours? Surprise active shooter drills? Seeking permission to literally speak your ideas? I scoffed at these concerns when I was a teacher. Children who can’t meet these demands are just uncooperative, unfocused, lazy. Watching kids who have been free of these “little things” for years, however, has drawn a line in the sand for me. They are unacceptable, period.

The pain of childhood, deeply dissociated, is always bubbling just underneath our adult conscious awareness. It’s hard to name a thing that is widely integrated into the culture, accepted, and laughed about. But the children I know growing up outside of school generally make a loud racket, hard to ignore. They have a LOT to say about school and mainstream treatment of children, and they are not pleased. For them, the pain of childhood is not so much underneath the surface; in contrast, it’s obvious and very much nameable. The refusal of most adults to hear what is painful is frustrating for them.

As a family, we’ve affirmed what our kids notice about children being receptacles of adults’ unresolved pain. Generational patterns that make children a wastebasket for rage and dreams alike.

Human nervous systems are attuned to notice micro-aggressions, are sensitive to what is wrong in a situation. We are wired to organize for re-association, connection. Once I started noticing the intense cultural dissociation from childhood pain, especially within schooling, I was inspired to advocate for connection and building a new way with others whose path has led to a line in the sand. Because the personal and collective impacts of coercive schooling need to be named. For me, this includes telling the truth that the schooling myth is fraught with illusion and devalues the pain of actual children. So fraught that I become hyper-sensitized to all that is wrong, the extent of harm. It only grows as my eyes open more. This is a typical conversation amongst homeschool moms, and it is a lot to be present with.

Tada Hozumi* eloquently describes the potential to “flatten the curve” for our nervous system arousal, personally and collectively. To flatten the curve means to keep phenomena within a capacity we can handle: that goes for healing, love, and — here’s my vantage point — school trauma healing.

One parent confides in a group of others the hopeful change she is seeing in her child since pulling them from school; the homeschool parents listen sympathetically and affirm her suspicions that her child was not okay at school. They listen underneath what she is saying and acknowledge the covert bullying or threats by school staff who called it “helping.” It is no surprise, but it is upsetting to hear, again and again. This sensitization to what is wrong at school can far surpass the capacity of my nervous system and overwhelm my ability to connect. I burn out, and return to what is true in the present moment, playing board games with my own two children. I have to find rest and relief returning to a simple day, and wonder if I should close my eyes to what is happening in the mainstream; bury my head in the sand and let my little family be a sanctuary. “Live and let live.”

But inevitably a new day comes, and I feel the privilege of having a teaching degree, having devoted myself to the system, and having the chance to heal and transform outside that system for ten years now. I know in my depths that it is a waste to turn my eyes and voice away from what I care about, even if what I care about is painful.

So I live in a predictably oscillating pattern of naming the incredible dissociation of childhood pain (chatting with folks, writing a piece, allowing deeper connections to come into focus) and then surpassing the capacity of my nervous system to handle it. It’s hard because this activation alternates with a period of burnout.

This burnout makes me sad because I see many parents showing up in their pain to try more honest partnership. Intentionally taking an unfamiliar path, day in and day out, without time and energy to reach out to others who need to hear it, without being seen in their power. There remains nothing socially acceptable about parents speaking up who reject the school model of relationship. I feel like saying stuff about this.

Ironically, the urge to name all the things and rationally explain them into existence is a tool for safety in school. A school-sanctioned use of activation; chronic nervous system arousal being widely normalized and validated in school. But the crash? Save that for your weekends or school vacation. And definitely do not ask for a bathroom pass to help yourself stay within range.

Do you feel the wide swing of activation, followed by exhaustion? A groomed response to stay present with escalation regardless what your body and heart are telling you?

I am learning to depressurize a bit before my inner indicator nears full capacity of my nervous system. I pull the plug on social media, turn away from school narratives, turn away from teachers’ voices, turn away from pathology paradigm stories about children. I remind myself that deschooling is a process. I seek self-care in the form of re-association, with friends, the natural world, with art.

Two young girls in a field on a sunny day; girl in foreground is holding a Ball jar horizontal and bringing a Monarch butterfly out of the jar on her finger
The author’s daughter releasing a Monarch butterfly on a regular day without school

There is a place of being able to acknowledge what’s really wrong, simmering just below the surface all the time, and also not be completely entangled in a threat to my sense of safety. This place can also hold trust that there is time for change to happen at a safer pace. To learn a new way to witness pain or conflict and stay within heart and gut. I like to listen to the COVID19 “flatten the curve” discussions and translate it to the personal: the idea is to reduce overwhelming our systems, so we can care for ourselves and communities within a capacity that can be handled.

So I remember my ability to hold, speak to, and make change about school trauma, personally and collectively, only within the container that is my nervous system at any point in time. I’ve set an intention I’m not sure I can embody regularly yet. To honor the nervous system that is mine, that is so much a living reflection of my ancestors’ realities as well as the modern human condition. I plan to honor the limits of my personal curve, and let the life that emerges, within a curve held more comfortably, be my honor to live.

*Tada Hozumi’s writing and teaching and the Ritual as Justice School inform my understanding and thinking around cultural somatics.

Larken Bunce’s teaching informs my understanding around nervous system function, trauma response, and resilience.

This article is published at Medium.

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