I work at a middle school. As a therapist working with preteens, I am no stranger to strong and sudden outbursts of emotion. Bubbling joy, agonizing heartbreak, red hot rage, ear-steaming frustration, giddy giggling, awkward EVERYTHING, and of course: boredom. But there's always something surprising and new lurking just around the corner, for those who are listening.
My office shares a wall with a single stall bathroom. It's a decent wall. Normally the only sounds I hear from the other side are the crank of the paper towel dispenser and a well muffled flush. This morning, as I was sitting at my desk checking email, someone entered the bathroom. I barely registered hearing the weight of the door close behind them, and then: a long, wavering howl. My ears pricked to attention and curled around this strange undomesticated sound. A jagged series of wails and yowls followed the first in arrhythmic succession, groans and sighs bemoaning the animal blood coursing behind that thick wall. I scanned for distress: No, this was not the sound of crying or fighting, but the release of a primal impulse even deeper than emotion.
My initial "adult at school" reflex was to go knock on the door and tell the mischief maker to knock it off. A more vibrant impulse quickly rose up and swatted down that rigid scarecrow with a deft swipe. Instead I listened. I opened myself to the odd outcry, let my eyes away from the backlit bullets of e-communication, and smiled. It was so unclean and raw, this syncopated ululation that defied common categories of "sadness" or "anger," an unabashed outpouring of undifferentiated human feeling. It carried on for a minute or more until, just as spontaneously as it began, the cry concluded with a second soft thud of the door.
There is a rebel inside of me that revels in that wild song. A sleeping wolf, too brash too bold too intimidating for the workplace, who rustled to attention and attuned to the distant yet familiar cry, recognized the impulse and howled along. I believe she is common to us all: a yet-untamed unbroken wildness that is alive in the heart and hackles of every human. A wildness that awakens and responds to the wildness in others. As "civilization" encroaches on her terrain in both the lived environment and the inner psyche, she keeps a quieter profile. In a hostile environment — one where derision, ostracization, violence or punishment are the tools of social conformity — wildness will hide itself, mask itself, tuck itself away in the darkest, crookedest, hardest to plumb corners, and wait for the space to open. Signals from "the pack" awaken and embolden.
Especially in the right-angled corridors of school, where teachers bark at students to "be quiet!" and "sit still!" and "behave!" and the system seems designed to knock the living soul-spark clean out of them, any stand for wildness is a protest. A protest against homogenization, against standardization, against un-human postures and hours and rhythms. A protest for creativity, for expression, for uniqueness, for the magical unknown, for self-discovery and for being alive! This isn't just about "kids being kids" or standardized testing, although that would be enough. The school houses of America are also housed within and thereby espouse other larger institutions of America: racism, sexism, capitalism, and a slew of social contracts whose insidious and ubiquitous nature obscures them from direct sight. As one of the earliest foundational institutions in which most children learn the rules of conduct in society (i.e. "how to act” and “what to expect”), school is a powerful tool of socialization. When we teach conformity, we inevitably teach conformity to a particular "standard" that is modeled upon a white, male, middle class prototype who presumably learns well by sitting alert and receiving instruction for hours on end. It is designed for a student who feels welcome to speak up, entitled to their education, trusts authority figures to have their best interests in mind, had breakfast this morning, and believes they have a bright future full of opportunities ahead. Our current school system is also modeled after the industrial revolution, the 8-hour-workday, and a mechanized model of productivity that compartmentalizes body from brain and leaves little room for cultivating physical intelligence, intuition, creativity, or authentic expression beyond prescribed periods.
I wasn't thinking about all this in those two surreal minutes of howl encounter. I was moved by the irrepressible persistence of the soul. Like the tiny seeds of grass that lodge themselves in the sidewalk and eventually crack the cement open to wildlife, there is a howl in all of us that will not be cemented over. That cannot be civilized. That rebels. That wildness within will plant itself in the cracks of our institutions and grow to crack them open.
Sasha Wright, LCSW
I provide psychotherapy in the Bay Area. My holistic orientation embraces the body, mind, and spirit as intertwined aspects of being. My work focuses on seeking resilience and weaving sustainably vibrant lives, and is infused by my own practices in dance, mindfulness, creative arts, earth based spirituality, and spending time in nature. I write to share ideas, inspire embodiment, and support wellbeing. Enjoy!
Sasha Wright is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW #70802) providing therapy in the San Francisco Bay Area, and sees clients in Berkeley & Oakland.