“A broken heart,” I wrote on a poster-sized, yellow Post-It.  Then, underneath, “A heart broken open.”

“Just a little inspiration for your free-write, in case you need it,” I told my students as they came in to our tiny classroom, an old office-building lunchroom.  We always warm up with ten minutes of free writing about anything.

Broken hearts versus Hearts broken open: It’s a little mantra that’s been going through my head this month.  Not an original one: Quaker writer Parker Palmer introduced me to it, in his book A Hidden Wholeness.

I quoted Palmer a few weeks ago, when I wrote about Washington State Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, who had the courage to change her mind and support same-sex marriage. This time, Palmer got me thinking about how one word, “open,” changes everything.  A heart broken—smashed, pieces scattered, beyond repair—versus a heart broken open: like a seed that needs to break open in order to sprout.  Or like a broken marriage that, someday, grows into a blended family. Or a tragedy or illness that breaks the people it strikes open into compassion and empathy. My own example is my mother’s early Alzheimer’s disease, which broke every heart in my family, but it also broke us open.  We know we’re not alone; we’re one of five million-plus American families who know the shape of this particular heartbreak.

I put those words on a big Post-it because I thought it might be an idea that would appeal to teenaged writers.  Who knows better than they the fresh, salty, smarting pain of a broken heart? I know they can’t immediately leap from that kind of pain to the healing that comes when your heart is broken open.   But I wanted them to think, as writers, about the power of one word.

Palmer writes, “As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope.”

Many of the students I work with live full-time in that “tragic gap” between reality and possibility. Reality might include family lives strained by poverty, addiction, incarceration. Possibility might include an iron determination to beat the odds and get that high school diploma. It might include a talent, a dream, a relationship, a baby.

It’s hard to tell, with teenagers, whether something is resonating or not. Certainly I undermined my hearts-broken-open lesson by scattering Valentine’s Day chocolates around their tables. Hard to get all serious when you have a Hershey’s miniature in your mouth.

But they wrote: about relationships, about wanting to be a good parent, about finally getting serious about school and wanting to graduate.

They may not see their hearts this way, but I see their hearts already breaking open into ever-greater capacity.  For starters, they’re in the classroom, which means they haven’t walked away and given up.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts now available!