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  • Matthew E. Henry

being present

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

By Matthew E. Henry

When you hear your name with a rising terminus, turn your head. Stop grading, planning, or returning unimportant emails. There will be time enough for those later. Make eye contact and read them: averted, blank, condensing, dead, evasive, flat. Convince them you’re not too busy, are never too busy. Ask if they want to leave the office and its prying ears. Walk slowly, give them time. Find somewhere semi-public/semi-private, but safe. This is how you sit. This is how you sit in silence. This is how you sit in God-damn silence until they are ready. See how hair covers a forehead or eyes which shift like prey—up, down, away, looking for an exit, or never leaving the ground. Note the length of sleeves and how much they’re clutched or adjusted, rolled up or tugged down. Check to see if arms are fetally crossed, wrapping coats, sweaters, air tighter around themselves. Take note of wrists. If hands—with picked or shredded nail beds—kneed each other like unleavened bread, cover mouths, or cheeks. If they twist or pull at hair. Grip or punch thighs. If legs shake, feet tap a somatic morse code. This is how you listen. This is how you listen in silence. This is how you wait and listen in silence never knowing what will come next. What if I can’t…I don’t care how you’d finish that sentence. If you “can’t” you’re in the wrong profession. Get out. We don’t need you. They can’t use you. This is how you let them exhale. This is how you let them ramble. This is how you let them ramble until they arrive at why, at what. This is how you let them curl into a ball. This is how you uncurl them. This is how you make a joke. This is how you laugh at their trauma-sodden joke. This is how you worry when the joking stops. This is how you finish their sentence. This is how you wait for them to finish it. This is how you know which is needed most in the moment. Apologize when you must ask a clarifying question. Apologize when you ask for more details. Apologize for apologizing. Apologize because it may be the only apology they ever get. This is how you give them options. This is how you give advice. This is how you give ultimatums as a second to last resort. Know what you can handle, what little is in your sphere of control. The limits of your resources: no matter your heart, you don’t have the correct letters behind your name. When needed, bring them to the professionals. If they won’t go, report as you are mandated. They may never forgive you, but they must be breathing to hate you. If they will, and they worry about who may see them outside that door, sneak them in—distract the bystanders in the hallway with sudden movements or animal noises, by tripping a substitute or school board member. Go with them, make sure they arrive. Make sure they enter. Enter with them. Sit on whatever surface is available and unobtrusive: chair, desk, floor. Learn how to silently sink into a beanbag chair. Become a cabbage, a leaf, a wildflower, a fly, the wall the fly is attached to. Sit in silence until they eye-beg for you to speak—to loosen the cap, tap the ketchup bottle bottom, or whatever smiling metaphor begins the slow, then gushing pour. Leave them in another’s care when they are ready. Stay if they need you, but leave if you can. This is not the end. Nothing is solved. Nothing is fixed. This is the beginning. Know that. Above all, make sure they know that you care, that you’re available. That you’re not abandoning them to some other adult with a softer voice and a lava lamp. That your door is always open even when it’s closed. That your door has a window for a reason. That knuckles are for knocking. As are eyes. This is how you bump a fist. This is how you poke an arm. This is how you pat a shoulder. This is how you offer a hug. This is how you keep your hug to your God-damn self. Eventually the day will end, and you will head to your car, bag filled with the other things—the less important things—for which you are contracted. This is how you cry. This is how you cry in your car without crashing. This is how you still your hands. This is how you unclench hands you didn’t know were clenching. This is how you don’t use your advanced degrees to commit untraceable acts of violence against those who hurt your kids. This is how you find distractions. This is how you turn off your brain. This how you return to sleep. This is how you sleep through the night. This is how you begin anew the next day. When do I find the time to grade, plan, and return the unimportant emails? You’re asking the wrong questions.


Matthew E. Henry (MEH) is the author of the Colored page (Sundress Publications, 2022), Teaching While Black (Main Street Rag, 2020) and Dust & Ashes (Californios Press, 2020). He is editor-in-chief of The Weight Journal and an associate poetry editor at Pidgeonholes. MEH’s poetry and prose appear in Porcupine Literary, Barren Magazine, The Florida Review, Massachusetts Review, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, and Zone 3 among others. MEH’s an educator who received his MFA yet continued to spend money he didn’t have completing an MA in theology and a PhD in education. He writes about education, race, religion, and burning oppressive systems to the ground at and @MEHPoeting.

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