Working in silence is a common feature of school life. Whether in the classroom or the exam hall, staff strive for this still and quiet state for clarity, control, focus and productivity. I have spoken also with many students who support the creation and maintenance of a silent working environment either in class or in their home working space. However, in a recent conversation I had with a year 11 student, I learnt of a darker side to silence, which although may not be experienced by all, may offer insight into why some students resist and challenge a silent working model.
The student I worked with had recently discovered one of his parents were secretly having an affair. He was then met with the dilemma of what to do with this knowledge; did he confront the parent with whom he felt overwhelming feelings of anger, betrayal and disappointment, share his findings with his other parent, who he felt duty bound and protective towards or was he to stay silent, haunted by the knowledge of the cracks that lurk beneath his parents relationship and tasked with containing and concealing the strong emotions that flooded him? Fearful of disrupting or losing the safety and familiarity of his current family structure, he chose not to share but instead to hold onto knowledge of the affair, doing what he could to put it out of his awareness and carry on as if he had not made the discovery. To keep it off his mind he would do what he could to distract himself; listening to music, socialising with friends and minimising time spent at home. He regularly used alcohol and marijuana to numb his strong emotions that radiated from what he now knew, with him being returned home by the police on a number of occasions. Although some of his behaviour was unhealthy and destructive, it was for him the only way he knew to how to survive and navigate through this difficult situation.
There were of course times when he was unable to fill his world with noise and distraction and when numbing sensation with recreational substances was incompatible with his activities. This was the case at night time when he tried to sleep and when silence was enforced in class and exam halls. He described these occasions as times when he had no escape from his reality; imprisoned with his memories, fears and emotions, which pushed their way into his mind as soon as the barriers holding them back were removed. Bound by quiet and solitary states, he was unable to reach out to others to divert his attention from the dominant thoughts which obscured his focus. Silence for this student was unbearable and unachievable long term and he would often break silence in school, resulting in confrontation with teachers, detentions and removal from exams. His solution was to seek permission to listen to music through earphones, which would provide enough background noise to deter his negative thoughts and facilitate focus on his work. This also proved helpful when trying to fall asleep at night. Not all, but some teaching staff were accommodating of his request and it was in these lessons he thrived. Within the safety, support and confidentiality of our counselling relationship, he used our time together to face his reality, so he could begin to process and accept his emotions instead of running from them.
Janina began her counselling training in 2002 and has been working therapeutically with young people since 2007. Janina occasionally writes blogs for the charity CXK.