International Journal of

Communal and Transgenerational Trauma

Journal of
International Humanistic Psychology Association

Knowing My Why

Social scientists recognize that case studies help illuminate critical ideas about the human condition. By sharing stories, we allow others to make connections and draw parallels. We all construct our realities. These constructions stem from a few foundational pillars, the years on this earth and our experiences, our DNA, and our ancient history. Before scientists began studying history’s effects on our reality, the shamans and poets knew it existed in our psyche. And I had two concrete experiences crystallizing this concept.

Thirty plus years ago, I worked as an artist’s assistant for a Turkish person (and the ethnicity is central to this vignette). One morning I arrived at the studio to find my employer agitated. While dealing with a family emergency, the teenagers decided to throw a party. The party became loud, and the neighbors called the police. “Those Greeks,” my employer lamented in frustration, blaming the neighbors for the melee aftermath. Most important for this vignette, the neighbors were called out by their ethnicity, my ethnicity.

In my home, I observed a similar situation during this time, only with the characters reversed. My mother was under a lot of stress. One of those stressors, albeit happy, was my sister’s wedding. To alleviate mom’s anxiety, we decided to rent a limousine to return home. At the end of the party, the driver was waiting. Making small talk, it became evident that he came from the Mediterranean. It turned out that our driver was from Turkey. As soon as we got home, my mother, who had turned silent during the drive, breathed relief and praised God that the driver didn’t hurt us.

Rational reasons for these irrational responses exist. My mother, my employer, and I share a multifaceted history. Our story began in the Ancient Near East when it was one of the cradles of civilization. Then, it flowed across the Aegean to Classical Greece. Next, it marched with the Roman Empire and returned to our dominions with the rise of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantium. Finally, our history reached its zenith in 1453 with the beginning of the Ottoman Empire.

Even after the War of Independence in 1821 reestablished Greece as an independent country, parents on my side of the Aegean threatened to sell misbehaving kids to the Turks. And parents, on my employer’s side, warned their children about trusting those Greco-Romans, i.e., the Rums. That history, those traumas, distilled themselves into both my employer’s and mother’s psyche, and during their stress, they reverted to scapegoating based on historical trauma.

Trauma affects people and how they interact with their worlds. Along with the historical trauma, people of my parent’s generation experienced unspeakable horrors as children of war-torn Greece. My mother lost both parents before the age of 16. Her father when she was six because she could not get to the pharmacy; the soldiers had destroyed the bridge.

My father felt the effects of the war on his body both in and outside his home. In the home because his father’s PTSD, brutalized the family. Outside the house, because the children would escape into the streets and as little ruffians are apt to get into trouble. He spent two months in the hospital after one such escapade. Unable to overcome those childhood experiences, my father infused our home with chaos.

Growing up in a traumatic environment conditions people to accept atypical situations as normal. Learning to overcome this conditioning takes time. However, when on the path to discovery the universe manages to provide what they need.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) research study presents a case in point. This project began after therapists realized that regardless of the reason patients came to their clinic, the underlying causes stemmed from childhood trauma. The therapists wondered about the validity of this observation; was it unique to their clients and community, or was it universal? So, they created a study that asked participants ten yes or no questions about their lives up to age 18, such as:

Did you lose a parent through divorce, abandonment, death, or other reason?

The research findings confirmed ACEs’ universality in all demographic and socio-economic groups. Further, two-thirds of all respondents identified at least one ACE and approximately one-fourth of participants three. Most importantly, the data for participants at the “gold star” of effect size: the four or more p-value was stark. The researchers concluded that people with four or more traumatic markers faced significant risks for “poor later life outcomes.” According to the data, the higher the traumatic experiences:

the stronger the correlations to drugs and alcohol abuse;
the higher mortality rates, including suicide; and
the greater propensity of long-term, debilitating illnesses.

Four or more are considered significant, and I am in the four or more range. However, while I’ll never know what the future holds, currently, I am an outlier. Logically, the question coming from this data is what makes someone an outlier? Now, I know what made me an outlier and knowing my what drives my why.

I became an outlier because of my 7th-grade teacher when I was a student at the Alessandro Volta Elementary School. A school I attended for the 6th and 7th grades. This teacher, whom I call Mrs. French, encapsulated what Dr. Ford recommends all teachers do; she created a classroom full of mirrors and windows, but she did much more. Along with a highly enriched humanities-based curriculum, she opened doors:

We visited every museum in Chicago;
We attended a three-week outreach program conducted by the Walt Disney Communication Arts Magnet School; and
We participated in monthly field trips to the Art Institute of Chicago.

All those experiences built a foundation of knowledge in the humanities, but the Art Institute, and this isn’t hyperbole, saved my life. In those galleries, I discovered my mirrors and validated the ancestors I carried in me. In those galleries, I found my windows: learning about other histories and amazing ancestries. And, I realized I could always be proud of being Greek and fascinated with everyone else. Lastly, it was in those galleries learning about the productive struggle, learning about flawed individuals and their ability to rise out of ashes, that I found my doors.

Transformations rarely happen overnight. We moved at the end of 7th grade. While the new system was still part of Chicago Public, enrichment opportunities did not exist. I’ll never know whether the tax base wasn’t as robust, or whether the school governance did not recognize their importance. The core curriculum continued to be humanities-based, but everything else was lackadaisical. As a result, I graduated from high school without a path forward.

It took a while, but I found myself back at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), first as an entry-level employee, then as a student. And while a student at the School of the AIC, I realized the debt I owed Mrs. French and my responsibility to pay it forward. Never one to over-analyze a great idea, I began working as an artist in residence. And upon graduation as a substitute teacher. Those experiences solidified my belief in the power of a constructivist, humanities-based program. Further, they highlighted the difference in receptivity to said programming. Of course, all kids benefited, but those connections went much deeper for some.

Now, the next questions that often arise center around the specificities of pedagogy and current reality. I.E., Do I propose this type of education for all students and how did I move from Chicago to my current profession as a teacher and student advocate in the state of Wisconsin.

In response to the first question, the answer is yes. Educational enrichment steeped in the humanities opens the world of ideas to all students. Further, the more people engage in the arts, the more their fine motor and creative problem solving skills become. Children, especially ones from traumatic environments often lack this type of enrichment at home. Finding it at school helps us all get closer to our true potential.

In response to the second question, the answer is more nuanced. Life propelled me to Wisconsin, and finding a district that aligned with my core beliefs to my career. Thus, I would say, “All kids deserve the right to an equitable education, and equity does not mean the same for all; different kids need different things.” And, if this is the only reason for doing my work, it is enough.

The universe, however, has a way of awarding perseverance. In the winter of 2020, through the power of social media, I connected with an old classmate; the only person I remember from that time. As we were talking, I asked her if she remembered the name of our 7th-grade teacher. Without missing a beat, she said, “Yes, it was Mrs. Green; she was the A-Level teacher.” And immediately, I understood the depths of my why. My friend continued:

“When you guys left, I decided I would not stay in the A-class in 8th grade. So I did my best to fail everything during the first two weeks of school. I succeeded, and they placed me in the B-class. That first week in the B-class was a blast; I was sure I had it made, everything was easy. The second week, I realized my mistake. Everything was easy for me, but my peers were still working.

Moreover, my teacher was busy with those students; she did not have time for my shenanigans. So I went down to the principal and argued to return to the A-class. I had to prove myself. They made me sign a contract and gave me one month. It was the best decision I made.”

Stories, biographical or otherwise, combine unique events with universal themes. Trauma is universal, often hidden in plain sight. Education is a higher calling, more than a career; it holds the potential to be the ultimate force for good. Unfortunately, often misguided solutions fail to understand what teachers know — providing kids with appropriate educational opportunities is the most equitable way to ensure that we all reach our potential. If we truly want everyone to succeed based on merit, we must provide opportunities to build this merit.

Whether because of grace, dumb luck, or some hitherto unknown variable, I was placed into a class with a depth and variety of enrichment opportunities providing me with a glimpse into a broader world. Seeing beyond my current realities meant imagining a future. As wonderful as this outcome was for me, the fact that it is a rarity should make us all angry.

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