Having Heart: The Healing Power of Listening

The class had already earned a reputation for being one of the more difficult ones in a school that considers itself the last stop for young people who have spent the majority of their student careers majoring in "Disruptive" and minoring in "Challenging."


The class had already earned a reputation for being one of the more difficult ones in a school that considers itself the last stop for young people who have spent the majority of their student careers majoring in "Disruptive" and minoring in "Challenging."

The school believed in separating classes along gender lines as a way to promote academic success. The young women in the circle I facilitated at the school on this day were alternately flipping hair, checking perfectly groomed eyebrows on phones in selfie mode and adjusting cropped tops in attempts to better display belly rings. One, Kim, was rapping a cappella to a current hit while looking expectantly in the direction of the doorway.

Kim’s patience was rewarded with the appearance of the mirror image of herself, her twin sister Kia, who had been in a morning meeting with administrators and social workers to discuss expectations around her behavior. She was not a new student. Kia was a "re-admit" following a hearing where she had been granted bail on a charge of attempted murder. She had spent the last three months in Rose M. Singer, the facility that houses women on New York City’s infamous Rikers Island. Kia was 16 at the time of her arrest. The class treated her with a loud chorus of "Yasssss!" and made space for her within the circle.

I was the only one who was unaware of the circumstances surrounding the fanfare. But I was quickly brought up to speed when Kia offered "check on each other" as a new addition to the community agreements we had established as part of the circle process.

"We should check on each other, even when we mad at each other," Kia said. "Being away from my family, from my sister, was hard. But I spoke to her whenever I could. She always picked up the phone even when I knew she ain’t f***ing feel like it. Cause I’m her sister and she supposed to. But she didn't have to cause I was there, I wasn’t here. But the rest of y’all just stopped f***ing with a b**** and that hurt because we was all cool. Like, y’all don’t know how hard that was. That s*** is f***ed up. A b**** coulda died and b****** wouldn't have cared."

The group was uncharacteristically quiet. Heads were low, eyes were even lower, and the adults were shocked into silence. I gestured to Adam, one of the teachers, to pass a box of Kleenex to Kia and asked if she was comfortable with continuing. She said she was good, and then pointed at Claire, one of her classmates. "You didn’t come to see me one time, you ain’t send a letter, like, you forgot about me and besides my sister, before all this, I was checking for you the most." 

As Kia began to cry in earnest, Jasmine, another classmate, said, " Kia. You can ask Kim. I asked about you all the time. I told her to tell you I said ‘Hi’ and asked how you were doing. But my mother was not about to let me go visit nobody in nobody’s jail. I’m sorry you feel that way, but we do care about you. At least, I do. And I’m glad you’re back."

Jasmine was joined in her apology by others who were owning the ways in which they may have had contributed to Kia’s feelings of hurt, isolation, and aloneness. Kia’s sister Kim, who was silent through the exchange, now offered her own critique, but it was leveled at her sister and not their friends.

"I’m always going to be there for you. Right or wrong. But you can’t expect everybody to co-sign stupid s***that you do. I understand why you did what you did, but you didn’t have to do it. So, if you make the decision to do something you know you don’t have any business doing, then you also make the decision for people to not f*** with you. Period point blank. B****, you got a new chance. Don’t YOU f*** it up."

The teachers looked uncomfortable and signaled their uncertainty about allowing this painful and profanity-filled conversation to continue. But the process is the process. We had created a space that enabled this young woman to verbalize her hurt in a way that allowed her peers to hear her, without counterattacking or being defensive in attempts to minimize her feelings. It had allowed her twin sister to express her own frustrations with a situation that was equally hard for her.

For the adults, it was crucial to see that Kia’s "successful" return to class following an arrest and subsequent incarceration would not have been realistically possible without addressing how both had impacted Kia, Kim, and the rest of the class.

As the circle keeper, I chose to allow this uncensored, unfiltered discussion. Students at the school were often reminded to use appropriate language in the classroom. But in the context of this circle of students (whose ages ranged from 16 to 19), the cursing seemed cathartic, allowing for psychological release at an emotional and important moment.

As a way to wrap up the conversation, I pointed out the unusual position that we as a group had been in and acknowledged the depth of maturity and patience displayed. I thanked Kia for the gift of her trust in the group to be with her hurt. I thanked the rest of the circle for the gift of their willingness to provide Kia with the space to begin her own healing by sharing her truth. I suggested that we were at the beginning of a new journey, not the end, and that it wouldn't always be an easy one. But if we remembered the experience of giving and receiving our gifts, we would have something to light and lighten our way when things became murky and heavy.