by Lisa Grotkowski
Why do your eyes close when you laugh?
I held my breath as a 15-year-old Brazilian exchange student studied the face of her Taiwanese counterpart. Also 15 years old, the Taiwanese student blinked a couple of times, felt her face, and then invited the Brazilian to touch her face as she continued laughing.
Everyone laughed. I exhaled.
I exhaled and took in the remarkable scene around me. Sixteen students from 14 countries openly, honestly, vulnerably exploring things that they wonder about each other – people different from themselves.
As I take in this circle, I remember being 15, meeting a black peer for the first time, and feeling overwhelming shame over wanting to touch her hair. I think that, even now at 36, there are few things better than putting my inhibitions aside to compassionately explore and open-heartedly learn how to honour the people and world around me.
For eight years, I’ve helped design and lead three-day orientations to ensure that Rotary Youth Exchange students, all in high school, thrive in international exchanges. For inbound students, those arriving from other countries to spend 10 months in Canada, the goal is to lay the foundation for a strong peer community. This “exchangee” community helps students to cope with and work through the innumerable challenges of being a teen immersed in up to four separate host families, a new school, a new language, and a new culture.
Circle practice has done wonders. Year after year, I witness students transcending fears, misunderstandings, and assumptions about one another to foster goodwill and deep respect. Many of them develop friendships the could not have imagined. Circle creates the conditions for these students to truly see one another – both their similarities and differences. It provides good process for them to ask, with compassion and genuine interest, tough questions that, in other circumstances, have the potential to create divisions. It helps them to be heard, seen, and experienced even when, particularly in their first few weeks, English words are not available.
Despite the evidence of the power of The Circle Way to overcome, it sometimes scares me.
I care deeply for each student who comes into the Rotary family. Year after year, I am introduced to brave yet, often, timid young people. They arrive to orientation hesitant and leave open, trusting, and, as a result of their hard work, intimately woven into the exchangee family as part of a tapestry. This is the good.
My fear stems from the after-effects of a powerful circle experience. It comes from these students’ desire to re-create the products of circle – vulnerability, trust, and connection – with their host families, peers, and Rotarians. It comes from learning that these students sometimes ask questions that, while deemed safe in our circles, are experienced as divisive and explosive elsewhere. It comes from knowing these students connect deeply and then, often, experience extreme loneliness in the days that follow, as they embark on individual journeys and join host families across northern Alberta and British Columbia.
My fear also stems from my own experiences with circle. I often experience circle as deeply connective, open, and, even, rehabilitative. However, I often end up with a “hangover” after a deep circle experience. I find the world too fast, too harsh, and too inattentive to people’s needs, experiences, and whole selves. Ordinarily, I am part of the flow of people moving too fast, too harshly and, because of my inattentiveness, without enough empathy. The pitfalls of this are more acute, more amplified after the circle experience.
And so, I wonder . . . what is my duty, especially with vulnerable populations, to support people who experience circle hangovers? The re-entry. The transition. The closing of one space and re-opening of another.
As it stands, I close intentionally. I invite conversation around gradual re-entry. I talk about the immense gift that Rotary is and the unique ability for all of us to come together and explore one another and our experiences with such curiosity and appreciation for our differences. I create mechanisms for ongoing contact and communication among students. I invite relationships between exchange students and alumni, as well as between students and Rotarians.
And still, it doesn’t feel like enough.
With this, I ask: What is your experience with the circle hangover? And how do you support yourself and others through it? Please share your comments below.
Lisa Grotkowski is a community strategist, conversationalist, and writer. She makes her way in the world as a quick study of complex subjects and thrives on designing engagement processes, conversations, and materials that bring people toward shared understanding. Lisa has the heart of a civil servant, the courage of an entrepreneur, and the wandering spirit of a global citizen. She marries the three through her public-sector consulting projects with Emerge Solutions and her volunteer work with Rotary Youth Exchange.