When a sunflower turns its heavy seeded head to slowly follow the arc of the sun across the sky, the biologists call that tropism. A new friend of mine – Kim Stafford – who is a poet, a singer and a teacher coined the phrase “tropism toward the difficult” in a talk he gave recently in Medford Oregon. He was addressing a group of education activists and remarked that many people might “turn away from confusion, injustice, a hurt child, a family in chaos – but the true educator will turn toward what is difficult and see, with the help of others, what can be done.”
I was struck by that image – tropism toward the difficult – and stand in awe of just how many teachers, counsellors, after school program providers, mentors, sports coaches and countless others work every day across America to help kids make sense of a rough and tumble life.
This is especially important when we consider the burgeoning body of work on Adverse Childhood Experiences showing the impact on brain development and the life-long consequences of unabated trauma in the life of a child. I think about these kids a lot. They need every bit of help they can get. They need an army of people who turn towards their trouble with an open heart and open arms to support them. Don’t get me wrong. These kids are tough. But even tough kids need a host of caring adults in their lives.
My daughter runs an after school program in an urban setting. She told me the story of two brothers who regularly attend her program but who just disappeared. She called their home and talked to their school friends, but couldn’t find anyone who knew what happened to them. But then, they just reappeared a month later. When she asked where they had been, they told her “our mother’s boyfriend got into trouble. Some people came and shot up our house. We had to go live with our grandmother for a while.” My daughter was happy they came back and that her program could offer some help for these two brothers. Certainly, she and her organization exhibit tropism toward the difficult. But – as my daughter says – the biggest heroes of all are the kids themselves. When you learn what they go through and how often they get up after being knocked down you have to stand in awe of them as well. They don’t get a choice to turn away from the difficult. They have to face it head on. Every day. God bless them, and the adults who reach out to them. God bless all who turn towards the difficult.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.