Hearts at Work
By Jim Tipton
"Hugging—It’s Good for the Heart"

     Last week I opened up the Yahoo news to discover that still another horrible crime has been committed in a public school in the United States. It seems that Megan Coulter, in eighth grade and thirteen years old, hugged two friends on a Friday afternoon: "I was just giving them a hug goodbye for the weekend," Megan said.
     So says Megan, but the authorities have accused her of violating a school policy that says "Displays of affection should not occur on the school campus at any time." Although the hug turned out to be just putting her arm around the shoulder and squeezing tightly, bad-girl Megan is nevertheless serving detention after her classes at Mascoutah Middle School in Mascoutah, Illinois.
     Her mother, Melissa Coulter, said "It’s hilarious to the point of ridicule.  I’m still dumbfounded that she has to do this." District Superintendent Sam McGowan said that he thinks the penalty is fair. 
     I think that it would be hard to imagine this happening in a Mexican school where one sees girls walking together holding hands, and where embraces from teachers are common, even expected.
     And my Mexican friends usually greet me and each other with lots of touching, kissing, body contact, all platonic—those very "displays of affection" that Mascoutah Middle School finds so intolerable and worthy of punishment. 
     For me it brought to mind another teaching experience, this one at Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan. I was running a day-long teachers’ "In-Service" workshop on how to get kids to write. The people attending were generally very experienced late-elementary school teachers, all women (as is so often the case in this type of workshop), mostly older, say age 45 to age 60.  They were reasonably conservative but all were eager to learn knew techniques to help their young students get excited about language, about writing, and therefore about their own lives.
     During our three-hour morning session, the teachers, like good students themselves, threw  themselves into the work, which was largely exercises on how to tap into our own hearts and our own lives through writing. The last hour or so was spent sharing these pieces and by the time we left for lunch, total strangers were feeling very comfortable and close to each other.
     Although not required to do so, the teachers sat together in the cafeteria and during the lunch break continued talking about their own lives, what they had been sharing with each other all morning—nothing very dramatic, simple things like loss of a loved one, confusion over social roles, the desire to be closer to others, the desire to be useful. Some had come up with some really powerful images. 
     When asked to put into images what they felt like during this period of their lives, I received responses like, "I feel like I’m a piece of chewed gum," or "I feel like I’m a chair no one has sat in in three years," and I suggested that many of their students already have had very similar feelings. 
     By the end of the afternoon they seemed almost like teenagers at the end of a week of summer camp, thrilled with new discoveries about themselves, and thrilled to find others who had often felt the same way they had. 
     In the final minutes I had everyone join hands in a circle while we sang a simple tune over and over. While still joined and still singing we began to walk slowly in one direction to the beat of the simple song. At one point I dropped the hand of the person on one side and still holding the hand of the person on the other side I began turning and turning, coiling the circle of these sweet and dedicated teachers around me until we were a tight mass.  Everyone was essentially swaying slightly and hugging everyone else and everyone was very happy about it.    
     We stood hugging in that little mass of human beings a long time.  As we slowly began to pull back to our separate selves, we still stayed near each other, smiling at each other. 
     One woman named Edna, who was around sixty, began softly crying, and then big tears began running down her face. I looked at this matronly woman who had seemed to be "so together," and I said softly, not insisting on any response at all, "Edna, is there anything you want to share with us?"
     Edna looked at me and then around to everyone in the group. She said simply, "I just need to tell all of you that that was the first time I’ve been hugged in ten years." 
     I’ve always remembered that moment, and often in social situations I think there must be an Edna or two present. This holiday season let’s look for those Ednas (and Eds as well) and offer them a sincere hug out of our own most human hearts. 
     As for you, Megan Coulter, I have only one thing to say to you…"Keep up the good work!"