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I asked the students in my course on PTSS to fill out the study guide page which asks them to list significant individuals. I was particularly interested in how large a role that extended family and fictive kinship played in their lives. As I had anticipated, the students of color had more extended family connections and kinship patterns than their white counterparts.
When each student shared their list with the class there was a sense of respect even reverence given to the process. I did not share my list but I felt fortunate to know that I have a broad and extensive list of people who have been major supports and influences in my life. I also felt good knowing that my children are not only connected to my network but have all established significant relationships of their own thereby passing along a well-rounded ‘village of people’ to my grandchildren.
Some of these important figures in my life had a strong impact on me not because of their success and achievements but, because of their personal challenges and failures. The importance of failure was brilliantly illustrated in a conversation I had some years ago with a friend about eagles. He told me about how often an eagle will swoop down in an attempt to capture its prey but, despite its strength, skill, and agility, frequently fails to actually catch anything. In fact, their repeated failures might suggest to some that eagles are pretty poor hunters as birds of prey go. But then my friend shared something quite spectacular about these birds. He said that eagles are one of the only birds in the world that can fly straight up and through the most powerful and violent storm without being harmed and that this phenomenal ability was the direct result of the strength they gained from their constant failures.
I probably have grown and learned more about myself from my failures and hardships than from my achievements. I would suspect that much of the guidance that we receive from those important members of our family stems from what they too have learned from life’s tumultuous twists and turns. The sentient gleam of assurance from their eyes as they give counsel seems to tell a deeper story about their struggles and their triumphs. We, the recipients of these chronicles are spared the pain, and the emotional labor they suffered during their trials; trials which gave birth to the wisdom that they choose to convey to us.
It is their ‘knowing’ that captivates me, not simply the imparting of information but, a soul-stirring ‘knowing’ often leaving me speechless, aware that I dare not question or pry further. It is as if they transmit the very feeling of their experience like a bolt of electricity and then it is gone, vanquished most often by the brief flash of a smile. They purposefully pull the shade and shield us from the part of their past that remains in the “saved file” only opened on rare occasions to shed light but never to blind us.
Towards the end of the class, one of my students raised her hand and paused before she spoke. She reluctantly shared that one of the most significant people in her life was a grandmother that had died years before. She listed this grandmother as someone who continues to guide and assist her. I asked the rest of the class if they had included in their list, family members that had passed away and that they believe continue to assist them. Nearly everyone in the class raised their hand. I thanked the one student for her disclosure, because I understood that a graduate social work class was not a place where such feelings are usually openly shared. Everyone seemed relieved, as though their lack of acknowledgement had somehow dishonored their loved ones. There was no discussion of the “how” just a collective ‘knowing.’
The future of every generation lies in its progeny. Prepared or, unready they are the unwitting guarantors of familial memory, living time capsules filled with stories that define and sculpt family identity, culture and history. All of us are both mirrors and windows reflecting what has been and apertures allowing a brief and narrow look into the limitless potentialities of what can be.
If we listen we will hear family living or dead, speaking to us, inspiring us, our music and art, our poetry and this very piece that you are now reading. I hope I got it right!
In memory of Oscar and Nellie DeGruy