She’s got a smile that’s more like a hug. It somehow pulls you in. Even begrudgingly, it still manages to pull you in. Even me. I’m generally suspicious of people that seem too happy. From a young age, I have tended to subscribe to the old Groucho Marx creed that I never wanted to be a member of a club that would accept me as a member. Best to be wary at all times. But there she is every morning, hugging the whole damn campus with her infectious smiles. It wasn’t until I heard her teacher voice a few times that I started to take her seriously. Erin is our relatively new vice principal who is out to save each kid; at the very least to scoop up as many as she can. I’m now thoroughly convinced she is as authentic as she seems. So, when she looked at a school survey that suggested that students felt that kids on campus did not sufficiently respect one another, she made this her mission. Well, she made it one of her missions. She seems to have multiple, over-lapping missions going on simultaneously.
Share Hidden Burdens
“Breaking Down the Walls” is a program designed to do what most programs are unable to do with distant, wayward young teens; grant you entry. Get kids to talk about the problems and burdens they bring to school. Get kids to admit what they all secretly suspect about each other — their lives are far from perfect, and the life they lead on Instagram is, at best, a farce. It is, at worst, well-filtered photos thrown over a deeper longing peering out from their small, unmerciful microcosms, almost pleading for their lives to be better. The program also incorporates teachers to participate and to be prepared to show how their lives are not quite as they seem either. The basis for all of this comes from a slogan I heard, Phil Boyte, our presenter recite multiple times; “It’s hard to hate someone once you know their story.” I had to take part in something like this. I have prided myself on an ability to forge relationships with children, and have often copped to my own inadequacies and precarious childhood as currency to gain common ground. But in those situations, I maintain control. I choose what I share. And I share the moments and memories in which I have made my peace. I confess that I was hesitant to give that control over to someone else. But, if this is who I think I am, then I had to participate.It’s hard to hate someone once you know their story. - Phil Boyte Click To Tweet
Maybe a dozen teachers or so were in my session. Probably about eighty kids. And Erin. And Phil. Phil immediately disarmed large swaths of kids with his self-deprecating humor and easily relatable questions and games. He spoke with the calm cadence of a youth pastor that the kids seemed to already know and love. A man of maybe a little less heart might take this skill into business or sales, but Phil was spending the day with us.
Life Throws Curveballs At Everyone
It is fascinating to me how much a good school can hide. I believe our school to be on a mission, much like Erin. We are serving as a stepping stone out of poverty, introducing award winning robotics and engineering programs to kids that might not have ever known their existence. We generally do far better on state testing than our socio-economics would predict. And when you see the kids in this environment, this place of dynamic staff and great district and community support, you can slowly become totally oblivious that you have created a giant bubble. You get the opportunity to see these kids at their best because you have placed them in a situation with a bounty of opportunities to be their best, or at the very least something better. And then, when another good afternoon is under our belts, we all return to our shadows and secrets.
After some of the games and laughing had taken hold, we were asked to sit in circles of about eight or so kids and at least one staff member. And the questions began in a tone of voice that made it seem perfectly normal to be raising your hand.
“If you’re comfortable, raise your hand if someone close to you is dealing with cancer.” A few hands go up here and there. Some staff. Some kids. It is for most kids, a rare moment of equal playing field for adult and child. “If you’re comfortable, raise your hand if your parents are going through a divorce.” Turns out more kids are going through divorce than are going through cancer. Or maybe more kids are more willing to align with divorce than cancer. Not sure. I found myself wondering if admitting to a family member’s cancer battle would make it too real for some and allow possible death to sweep over them. It should seem too obvious that we all share the same problems. Cancer. Divorce. Lost jobs. Lost relatives. These woes know no distinction between ethnicities. They do not pick on the athletes or the robotics team, or any other click the kids can conjure up. They know no bounds. Pain does not discriminate. Ever. Or course, it’s one thing to know this as an adult. It is another to see it as a child.
“Raise your hand if someone at your house is dealing with addiction.” Addiction won. Not even close. Every group had more than one hand. It was as if Phil had asked the easy math question that every kid wanted to answer. At one point, a child added that both of his parents were addicts.
I confess, I felt a bit blind-sided by this one. I had become forgetful to the fact that I had helped create a bubble for these kids. I also seemed to have bought the national narrative that the opioid crisis was something that was happening in the Rust Belt. Ohio, mostly. It’s so easy to allow ourselves to see the world as happening “somewhere over there.” It never is. It is always right here. And looking at those kids with their hands held high, I couldn’t help but realize that the meek are not faring as well as was once expected.
Having taught for a few decades now, I have had a rare opportunity to see society and public policy through the eyes of a child. Whether we like it or not, most state and federal policies have a child sitting at the other end. And, I have met a few. So, while we continue to set lower bars for new and lesser norms, I have to ask the question: For how long? How long can policy or lack of policy rip through chunks of society before the bow breaks? I can remember years ago, when heavy-handed drug policies and for-profit prisons created a perfect storm that instantly dissolved inner-city families, leaving hundreds of thousands of children to carry burdens beyond their years. There are now more opioid prescriptions in Tennessee than people and I find it hard to believe that this was just a shipping error. Close to three million children are being raised by grandparents as of last year, the spike in that number attributed to repercussions from the opioid crisis. More kids. More scars. Greater the odds they fall through the cracks or repeat the behaviors. Every policy. And sometimes, every lack of policy, can be named after a child waiting at the other end. I saw several of them raise their hand the other afternoon, just in case we missed them.
That was a Friday. On Monday, we all piled into the bubble again. Many of us, kid and teacher alike, with a greater sense of urgency. And there was Erin, hugging every kid with her smile. The mere fact that we have worked so damn hard to create this tiny bubble in this one little neighborhood, makes me wonder how long we can keep this bubble going before it begins to crack. Until then? Until then, we keep the mission going. Through resolve. Through support. Through the extra effort. And through smiles and hugs that hopefully will keep the bubble intact and the individual walls breaking down for years to come.
For more inspiring classroom stories, please check out Mr. Bowen’s recent best seller, Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom.