by mark yaconelli

Eleven months into the pandemic, the brand new Phoenix High School has opened for in-person classes. It feels like an intensive care unit. Hushed. Somber. Antiseptic It’s hard to believe I am in a teenage space. No scuff marks on the glossy floor. Walls pristine white. Windows translucent. The open foyer and hallways are mostly empty except for a few masked Adults walking briskly, avoiding eye contact.

The five hundred students enrolled in Oregon’s Phoenix High School are traumatized. Not only because of Covid anxiety and social isolation, but also because six months earlier what has been termed a “climate” fire burned much of the town to the ground–over 2,500 homes destroyed, approximately 5,000 people displaced, the majority from the local Latinx community.

After disinfecting my hands and signing a contact tracing form, my colleague Erica Ledesma and I are escorted to Mr. Rodreick’s classroom. His afternoon class is titled “How to Become a Better Human Being.” The classroom is watched over by large profiles of American saints: Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Helen Keller, Rosa Parks, Abraham Lincoln. Erica and I stand self-consciously in front of the nine students who look like enormous cockatoos in their white beaked breathing masks.

We have been asked by the Oregon Health Authority to help students share stories as a way to reduce anxiety and depression. In My Grandmother’s Hands, therapist and author Resmaa Menakem depicts trauma as “a wordless story our body tells itself about what is safe and what is a threat.” This traumatic story keeps us feeling anxious, defensive, isolated, trapped. The work, according to Menakem, is to “metabolize our pain.” Sitting in circles, listening compassionately to one another is one way we digest our suffering and activate our capacity to heal.

I diagram a few story patterns on the white board. I talk about how most stories present a conflict, a problem, a difficulty. This has been a year of immense difficulties. We ask the students to write a personal story about a struggle they have faced this past year. What was it like before and during the struggle? Where are you in the story now? The teacher passes out materials. The students go inward. The quiet scratching of pens on paper feels intimate. After ten minutes we sit in a large circle and the students read what they’ve written. They are stories of loss. Of isolation. Self-judgement. Unending worry. Stories of carrying the pain of their parents. When the sharing ends we ask, “What was it like to exchange stories?” A broad shouldered youth with a Seattle Seahawks jersey raises his hand. “Joyful.”

“Joyful?” I repeat, somewhat surprised.

“Yeah. Even though everyone’s depressed, I could feel myself in each person’s story. And that’s joyful.”