What My Students Taught Me

Recently on a walk, a good friend asked if I was ready for graduation. I had no legitimate answer with how inconclusive the last year and a half feel. The things I immersed myself in the first half of my Duke career have almost entirely changed – either in form or by being essentially dropped in the virtual world.

However, this bleak outlook does not faithfully capture the entirety of the past 14 months. In particular, RJ has miraculously retained its potential for connection and buoyed a year filled with unforeseeable challenges. My most reliable times of levity and release came in the form of circling, even in its virtual form.

This year I have been truly privileged, as my former co-teacher Alejandra put it, to teach a course about restorative principles to fellow Duke students. This class has become my personal sanctuary. I formed a genuinely deep bond with both classes in a time characterized by the lack of interpersonal connection. With RJ, the distance doesn’t seem to matter the same way. I owe all of the people who have been in my class an expression of gratitude for forming a space that showed me that.

However, the course did not only provide a personally important space. It showed me how RJ can always teach something new, even to those teaching it. I so frequently felt that my students were teaching me more than I taught them as their perspectives illuminated materials and topics in a unique way.

This dynamic reveals a fundamental part of RJ. No one owns the process. While there are people who keep the space, they simply do that. Maintain rather than create. Rather, it is the members of a circle who make a circle what it is. Each person teaching others as they teach from their perspective.

I came to embrace the feeling that I was the one learning, even though I had the technical term of being the teacher. It wasn’t a failure on my part. Rather, it was a success of allowing others to truly occupy a space and share what occupies their mind.

I believe there is relevance to this for other aspects of life. Often, we become preoccupied with what our expertise to offer is. Undoubtedly, mastering topics and disseminating one’s knowledge is invaluable. Yet, in that process, we should try to not lose sight of the inflections of teaching offered by the people you teach. Their perspective will cause yours to deepen as well.

What Type of Healing Do We Seek?

“Why are you a history major? Don’t you want to be a doctor?”

This line of questioning is all too familiar. Earlier in my college career, I lacked the confidence to reply the way I actually feel. Truthfully, this question drastically misses the point of why I want to practice medicine.

To me, medicine is a fundamentally human endeavor. The scientific knowledge and training that underlies and advances it is unquestionably essential. Yet, medicine without the desire to understand human needs seems empty to me.

It took me a long time to understand this fundamental principle about myself. I was often left confused in a similar way to the people who asked me about my studies of choice. How could I be a doctor if the coursework that leads to it leaves me struggling and I gravitate towards the humanities?

Practicing Restorative Practices immensely clarified that picture for me. Explicitly focusing on connections to others exposed my underlying motivation for becoming a physician: people.

I now anticipate my career in medicine by thinking of how I can incorporate restorative principles to bridge my desire for interpersonal investment with my career choice. In essence, I want to bring an intentionality towards the healing process. While my job as a physician will necessarily focus on physical ailments, I see a responsibility to pay attention to the needs of a patient as well as others in their lives impacted by their illness or injury.

I often wonder how much better an individual’s health needs could be met with simple questions like, “What do you need?” I imagine that allowing people to be heard would let us know what they need to heal better.

So, what even is Restorative Justice?

So, what even is Restorative Justice?

A succinct answer to this question always evades me. I usually stutter through clumsy words. It’s rarely, if ever, a satisfactory answer. The true meaning seems impossible to encapsulate in words.

This blog post was no different, at least at first. I fumbled with my words. Nothing I wrote amounted to much.

The past four or five weeks changed that.

As the world takes on more challenges by the day, our response is remarkable. Every day  I see examples of individuals helping each other, offering words of encouragement and support, and working together to embrace the struggle that is life in isolation. People that seemingly shared no connection are inextricably linked by circumstance. A convoluted web of social connectedness emerged – despite the distance from each other.

These connections are what Restorative Justice pays special attention to cultivate and maintain. These connections are always present. As social people, we forge a network that extends for a distance that isn’t easily quantified. Restorative Justice is a process of tending these connections, using them to build up and support each other and to prevent or repair harm when it occurs. Restorative Justice is understanding that if one is harmed, the whole of us is hurt. It is understanding that repairing and improving upon each other strengthens all of us.

So, that is the best answer I have to that question. It would have been nice if I hadn’t needed the current situation for inspiration, but the distance between us is a reminder of why the entirety of a community is so important. As important as ever.