I had known Lisa for nearly three years. There were two counsellors at the school but as luck would have it she had been in my Xgroup (the thing formerly known as Guidance classes) every year so far.
She was a quiet child who it seemed chose not to always express herself in the group. But things are often not what they seem to be.
Expressing yourself is a funny thing. There is more than one way to do it. In fact, there are many ways to do it. Of course, you can do it with words. You can do it without words; silence speaks very loudly (go up a lift and stand silently next to the only other person in the lift). You can do it with your body, your face your hands, your tapping foot that you are not aware of. You can do it by drawing, painting and playing music. And all of the above can work together to create a felt experience of you in the listeners mind and body; when I listen to or watch him I feel a desire to laugh, be happy, don’t know why! There are good reasons why people sometimes don’t express themselves with words, to protect themselves perhaps? But we are always expressing ourselves to others.
So although she hardly expressed herself with words, over the years I had listened to and watched her “expressions” closely. I learned that she was a very caring person, she loved and protected animals. She was a loyal friend who always kept a secret. I learned that sometimes she felt sad and a bit lonely. Funny that you can still feel lonely when you have lots of friends. Her school results were good and clearly, she worked quite hard. She had never been in trouble for anything at school.
When I facilitate Xgroups I try to involve the children who are quiet. Being quiet doesn’t mean that they are not listening, often the quiet kids are listening the hardest. This was definitely true for Lisa.
One day I was walking from the staffroom when I saw Lisa’s mom sitting on the bench outside my office, she was looking quite tense. She gave a small smile when I greeted her and invited her into my office. She sat down in the chair closest to me. She started to speak straight away. She spoke in great earnest about the frustration she felt with regard to her daughter, her poor attitude to school and brazen disrespect for her mother. I was listening closely and what I heard was a strong sense of disappointment that the mother felt towards her daughter.
After listening for a while I moved slightly forward in my chair and spoke to Lisa’s mom. The things you are saying to me are important, but I am concerned that Lisa is not hearing them as they obviously affect both of you. The thing is that you are talking about your relationship with Lisa. I think she should be here. Can I fetch her from class? Lisa’s mom nodded feebly…reluctance?
I walked to the science lab where Lisa’s class was and stood at the open door hoping to catch the teacher’s attention. She saw me and came to the door. I asked her if she would quietly and discreetly ask Lisa to come and speak to me outside the classroom. As the teacher spoke to her, Lisa looked up at me and walked to the door. Outside the class I told Lisa that her mom was in my office. I asked her if she would kindly join us as I felt she needed to hear what her mom was saying. She fetched her bag from the class and walked just behind me to my office. I stood at the door and beckoned her to come in and sit down. She chose the chair furthest away from her mom and sat without a word.
Before I could invite them to talk and listen to each other. Mom started talking in a high pitched agitated voice looking at me not at her daughter. I was taken aback by the abrupt manner with which she had started talking. Soon in a breathless tirade mom was screaming endless criticisms about Lisa. She’s such a disappointment, she could be so much more, I have high hopes for her, she doesn’t do any work at home and she is cheeky and disrespectful to me… and she was just getting warmed up.
I looked over at Lisa very concerned how she was handling this emotional onslaught, especially in front of me. She hadn’t moved but was biting her lower lip which soon disappeared into her mouth.
Remember I said that people’s expression can create a felt experience in the listener. Well I was feeling overwhelmed and scared as if a big wave had just broken over me pushing me underwater and holding me down leaving me gasping for breath. I also felt quite confused; the words Lisa’s mom was hurling, (that’s the only way I can describe it) didn’t feel like they matched or described the person sitting in my office that I had known for three years, who was she talking about?
Spontaneously, impulsively, recklessly, I stopped playing counsellor and just said the words that were burning inside of me.
“Why are you being so aggressive to your daughter?” I said looking at mom.
I was holding my breath realising what I had just said out loud. Lisa strangely didn’t seem to be concerned about the outbursts from her mom or from me. She was no longer biting her lower lip and had an almost smile on her face. Time felt like it had stopped or at least had slowed down to a kind of one-frame-at-a-time-motion. Complete silence. I felt like I was no longer in my body.
Lisa’s mom looked at me with an expression on her face of distraught anguish, the likes of which I had not seen often. Her face was contorted as she brought both her open hands to shield her eyes from my eyes. Her face was now resting in her hands and as soon as it could no longer be seen, she broke into a wail of tears that enveloped her whole shuddering body. She cried uncontrollably with every fibre of her being.
When people cry, let them cry and when they have finished crying place a box of tissues within their reach.
So in silence we, Lisa and I waited.
As her wailing and shaking slowly subsided Lisa’s mom said, “I am doing exactly what my mother did to me!”
That’s it, that’s all, no explanation, no details. She got up moved to Lisa pulled her up from her chair, hugged her closely and softly, as if she was a treasure to protect, and gently said, “I am sorry my angel”.
Lisa’s mom turned to me holding Lisa, walked with her towards the door and said thank you, we’re finished.
I locked the door of my office, sat in the chair, my body shaking as it always does after a deep emotional connection experience and I allowed my tears to flow quietly; some for Lisa’s mom, some for Lisa and some for me.
Now whilst I firmly believe in miracles I do not believe in magic. Lisa’s mom could and probably would forget to remember again and would repeat those terrible things to her daughter, especially when her own pain borne of her relationship with her mother arose again.
Nonetheless she had remembered at least once if not more; maybe that was why Lisa sat quietly as she did in my office listening to her mom, seemingly not too upset by mom’s unleashing. Also, Mom had said it in front of Lisa and a witness and I could testify to that when she forgot again.
I believed that it was important to be very flexible in the Xgroup. I tried to capitalise on every opportunity where growth, learning and understanding could take place. So, I abandoned the scheduled processes and told the Xers that we were going to look at parenting, our parents and us as parents.
Specifically, we spoke about the messages, spoken and unspoken, that parents gave us about ourselves, positive and negative and how that felt. It was Lisa’s class I was working with.
The final exercise in their journals was to answer the questions…What are you going to be like as a parent? What have you learned from your parents and how as a parent will you be the same and different from your parents?
At the end of the group session when all the kids had left, Lisa brought me her journal and asked me to look. These were her words.
“The past can hurt very much. You can remember to love those who hurt you. You can remember to love those that you hurt. Sometimes parents hurt their kids because they are carrying hurt that they forget they have. You can learn from experience. You can break destructive patterns. You can be different from those who hurt you. You can insist on being open to your children, no matter how hard that might feel.
You can remember to not forget that you love me”.