I have been working in public schools for almost half my life. My natural tendency is to help others dig deep and discover the cause of their discomfort and root of their “problem” so they can start to heal it and move on. I have listened to countless stories of grave mistreatment, dark and lonely sadness, debilitating anxiety and worry that attempts to make a permanent home in the psyche. I’ve also listened to bravery that exceeds what I knew to be possible and watched wildflowers bloom in a drought. The human spirit is amazing to watch and I am fortunate to do the work I do.

My mind is as analytical as they come (I know, shocking) and I use it to pick apart the complexity of what is handed to me in an effort to simplify and understand the whys, how’s and what ifs that we collectively face. The key to truly being able to dissect a behavior or situation is to step back and look at it from an outside perspective. Similar to watching one of those detective shows, I collect the data, piece it together with past experience and knowledge and then place it into the compartment where it fits best. Feelings analyzed, situation assessed, problem solved and explained. Done.

In order to do this method effectively, I have a strict rule of not emotionally attaching. I am allowed to feel the feelings to assess them and then I pass them back after the research has been done. I can do this all day long and by the time I am home from my 20 minute commute, I will have long forgotten the feelings of the day and move on to my own inner world. Am I a robot or the Tin Man? I’m not sure, but it is clear to me I always attempt to leave my heart at home where it’s best preserved and protected.

Recently, I was eating lunch with my friends at work. The day had been flowing great and I was feeling productive. At the end of lunch, one friend stayed behind and told me she had to tell me something in that serious tone of “you are just not going to like this.” She knows I don’t watch the news. I listened to her explain that one of our former students was found dead with a brief explanation of the bizarre cause. I continue to chew my last bite, thinking about the seemingly never ending cycle of death we kept facing as our school has had four deaths in the past year and how much more can a community take? But I am immune because I stay at arms length if not longer. Whatever you give me I can take.

And then she tells me the name as I swallow. I feel the food stop in the middle of my throat. What?? I feel the immediate sensation of tears coming up as the food tries to go down. They battle it out. I can swallow anything. You will go down. That’s where you belong. The food and tears have a standoff and almost simultaneously, I am able to swallow while the tears swell.

I am overcome with emotion and the thoughts race. How is this possible? This doesn’t make any sense. Not her. This can’t be. But I loved her. Wait, where are these emotions coming from? How did she get in? Why am I crying? Why does this hurt so much?

I spent the rest of the afternoon crying on and off. I mean like really crying. So so sad. And not empathy sad which is my normal mode. Of course I was deeply sad for her family, but this time, I was sad for myself. I was sad for my loss.

One memory after another flooded my vision. Her smiling face, the way we joked, how tough I was on her, how she responded to me and how I loved her. I loved her for who she was, not what I wanted her to be. I loved her for her mistakes and her really stupid decisions. Seriously, dumb stuff. But she knew it and admitted to them and was open and honest and lived as herself, not as an imposter. I loved how she expressed how she felt, no matter what it was, you knew how she was feeling. I also loved her for her drive to better her life and do right by others. Her intentions were always good, but they were also to survive. Survive in her painful world and make the best out of what was so very, very difficult. In every sense of the words, she was beautiful in her imperfection and I respected and admired her for that. And apparently, on a day I put my shield down, I let her into my heart and she has lived there since.

A day later, I was still crying. No idea why I was still feeling the pain. Isn’t it time to move on yet? I cried to my friend about how mad I was that I let her in, that I broke my rule and how it would never happen again, I heard myself say that she was the only one I could think of that I let slip through.

Because my dear friend is loving and respectful and talented, she gave me a slight look of surprise (her tact is exemplary) and somehow asked just the right questions to get me listing off all the kids I had attached to over the years. Turns out, there are many. So so many. This was a huge shock to me. I thought I was the Tin Man. I leave my heart at home where the wizard keeps it safe until I come looking for it.

I thought I was brave for keeping them out. I thought I was smart for staying on the outside. I thought I was doing my job well by not taking on their pain and keeping it with me. And in many ways, it is. But turns out, true bravery doesn’t keep them out, it lets them in. It teaches us to feel, to learn from others, to grow and be comfortable in our own imperfection. It allows us to connect and be caring and kind and speak our truth because we know that we appreciate hearing honesty as much as expressing our own.

And my truth is, once you let me into your heart, I will make a room for you in mine and I will keep you there and it will fill me up when I need to be topped off. And maybe, in truth, I’ve been the real Tin Man all along, my heart was always there, I just needed to be shown it to believe.