By Jennifer Rieger
People close to me know that I have psychosomatic reactions to stress. Many do, but sometimes mine are downright bizarre. When I found out I was pregnant, I kept getting these muscle spasms… in my face. As I studied for the Praxis Exams, I had a relentless burning sensation in my left boob. When I was writing my Master’s thesis, my tongue felt like it itched, for weeks. A few years ago, my work kept getting rejected by every publication I sent it to, and the blood vessels in my left eye burst causing a two-month scary zombie eye. My students couldn’t even look at me! I contend with these nuisances, but my typical reaction, and I believe the one most common to normal individuals, is the lump I get in my throat. It’s different than my stress symptoms though. I imagine it as an intricate little ball of nerves woven together in times of sadness and pain—when life is too much to bear, and I can’t seem to find the right words. A little bit of wine, but not too much, can provide temporary relief. Overindulgence usually results in one pathetic alter-ego that even my husband, God love him, cringes to deal with. The one thing that really helps globus—the proper medical term for Jen Rieger’s imaginary, but very annoying, lump—is time. Ah, time, that selfish, fickle bitch that quickens at every lovely occasion and halts at every boring and difficult moment of life. The knot has appeared at sudden moments of sadness, or even weeks later causing me to run to the doctor’s office in a state of hypochondriatic frenzy crying, “It’s cancer, isn’t it?” It’s there when loved ones pass, when my own child is sad, and when favorite graduates leave me.
It reappeared this summer just by watching the news.
I am a positive person—a lover of peace and beauty and light. I believe in progress, collective kindness, and hope. So why did the July shootings in Baton Rouge hit me so hard? I hadn’t been that glued to news sources since 9/11. Is it because I’m bombarded by social media—essentially inundated with a multitude of caring people craving solutions? Or is it because I also have to contend with the bigots, some that I have personally taught, talking out of their asses? Or maybe it’s because after all of these years, my sadness is compounded by an unnatural anger that only creeps into my consciousness on rare occasions. Yes, maybe that’s it.
We’ve seen it before. We’ve experienced a scary world during our time here on earth, but atrocities have been here long before we have. We’ve learned of goodness battling hatred time and time again. We’ve also learned that goodness always wins. Our greatest writers and philosophers have revealed this as one of our ultimate truths, and we have to remember that. I have to have faith that humanity will rise with a warm, loving, but strong vengeance. We’ve seen it before. I have to have faith that because of these tragedies, parents will talk to their children just a little bit more, teachers will show their students just a little more love, and strangers will help each other a little more often. We’ve seen it before. I have to block out the cynicism that the disillusioned side of me would like to default to, but can’t. I will continue to tweet and delete, tweet and delete my frustration, swallowing the knot in my throat that reminds me of the horror felt in the homes of the dead. Families who will never get their favorite people in the world back… families who will have to look at an empty seat at their tables… families who will be forced to choose between anger and forgiveness. We’ve seen that before too.
Can such a systemic problem find a solution? I’m just a teacher and a mom, but one who has watched the power of education and love conquer learned cycles of hatred. Some maintain that those learned behaviors will never go away; all I can say is I feel sorry for those who believe that. If that is your default setting, it is time to reset it. If that is your default, you are part of the problem.
I have an army. It’s a small army, but I like to think of it as my own little microcosm of world unity, love, and compassion. I run a program called Challenge Day with two other facilitators and a team of teachers, counselors, administrators, and students all wanting to make a difference—all breaking barriers that divide us. Race, faith, ethnicity, cliques, gender, sexual orientation, identity, disability, socioeconomic status, education. We discuss real life issues, work as a team, and uncover solutions to teenage problems and beyond. Most importantly, students learn to shed defenses and listen to each other. Really listen. I once watched a white, upper-middleclass athlete from a homophobic family stand up and, in front of a gymnasium of students, apologize to a black, gay student he had repeatedly bullied. The athlete then walked across the gym to embrace him. And it wasn’t the only time something like that happened. This is my reality. These are the miracles I am privileged to witness on more occasions than you would think. This is what I wish for in more communities across this country.
There’s a lull right now. It’s only natural to embrace the calm and forget problems that quietly linger outside of the collective consciousness. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still angry. I am. But I know what to do with that anger. I look to my kids—those who have risen to Gandhi’s call of being the change we want to see in the world. I wish you knew them. They’re beautiful, but they’re not perfect. Sometimes they get caught up in the drama of being young and impulsive, but time and again I’ve watched them graduate to become the most amazing teachers, lawyers, doctors, researchers, nurses, counselors, police officers, firefighters, and philanthropists you’d ever know. And we need more young people like them. We need more who will stare injustice in the face and say, “not today, not ever.” I look to those kids, my soldiers out there, standing up for what is right, and the knot loosens. It unravels. Just a little bit.
Jennifer Rieger is the English Department Chair at Upper Merion Area High School in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and teaches 12th grade Advanced Placement and creative writing courses. An advocate for her students, she dedicates her time to empowering young people through reading, writing, and acts of love. Jennifer holds a BA in English, an MA in Literature, and is currently finishing her MFA with a hybrid concentration in poetry and creative nonfiction. She has been published in The Sigh Press, Role Reboot Magazine, The Manifest-Station, and is also the Poetry Editor for Rathalla Review Magazine.