I spent the past 18 years of my life as a public-school teacher and have taught children from kindergarten to twelfth grade. I decided to become a teacher while working as a paralegal for an office that focused on criminal and family law. I felt that I was in a reactive position working as a paralegal to help people get out of or deal with situations that were creating problems in their lives. I believed that becoming a teacher would put me in a more proactive position where I could impact the lives of children and shape their minds to make decisions that would prevent some of the issues I helped people work through in my legal career.
When I began my teaching career, I thought that I would plan lessons; teach children; deal with an occasional behavior problem; forge relationships with students and their families; attend the weekly faculty meeting; attend my students’ ball games or recitals; and go home to my family to live in peace and harmony. Much to my dismay, working as a teacher exposed me to realities that I never knew existed in people’s lives. Students would come to my classrooms needing food or sleep before they could begin their school day. Some needed a safe place to be because home was too chaotic. Others needed a loving “home” because they felt rejected in their homes. Students dealt with identify crises that impacted their ability to process information, and I got an education that I had to prepare for every day.
Everyday I told my students they could be anything and become anyone they wanted to be if they worked hard and got a good education. “This is America; the only country in world that educates all of its youth as if they are going to college,” I preached to them; "Settle down and focus on your assignment." What I did not realize was that they were in an identify crisis with what I and schools were teaching them and what they were learning in their out-of-school environments. In some ways they knew more about the world than I because they were exposed to more in their lives than I had been at their ages. I no longer judged situations and simply practiced acceptance for what WAS or IS. I had to learn that the power of now was all the power I had to impact their lives and shape their minds.
I now sit reflecting on the past 18 years of my life. For the second June in a row, I must accept the loss of a young life that touched and shaped my life, mind, and spirit. I was told that I was the teacher and they were the students; however, I think it was more of a reciprocal relationship. It was either through their lives or the lives of their older siblings that I earned an education that my teacher preparation program did not tell me I would receive. For example, neighborhood alliances, also known as gangs in the African-American community, are associations that are hard to say, “No,” to. If you do not say, “Yes,” then there are ramifications and repercussions that threaten your health and those of people you love. If you do say, “Yes,” then there are ramifications and repercussions that threaten your physical freedom and cost you the liberties the United States of America was founded on.
America is now talking about Adverse Childhood Experiences known by its acronym ACEs. Included in these experiences are household dysfunction and violence. In its July 2014 Research Brief, Child Trends reported that economic hardship is the most prevalent ACE reported by almost all states. How does this related to gang violence one might ask? The answer is vey simple. When a family faces an economic hardship, every resource to provide for needs is explored by both adults and children. Parents work more to provide shelter, food, clothing, and means of an education. Children are left with limited supervision with limited adult intervention to help them embrace something other than the pressures of joining a gang.
Eventually, children yield to the temptation of joining a gang or embracing gang activity because they are provided with the things they need and want. They can work in an industry and for a boss that identifies with their everyday struggles and encourages them to take charge of their lives. Back in my days of being a paralegal, I listened to Ready to Die to better understand the clients that were coming into my work place. Now I think back to the lyrics of The Notorious B.I.G. and realize that “Everyday Struggle” did not begin and end with trapping. Everyday struggles begin with people not having access to the resources they need elevate themselves to be able to make a choice on a different way to live.
Last night marked another ACE that children in our community must add to their score. When the family members and friends of the young lady we lossed last night go to school in August, will their teachers understand that they are changed by the transition of someone they identify with? Will teachers understand that their students cannot see themselves in the American dream we will try to sell them? Will my colleagues extend compassion, guidance, and discipline instead of chastisement when a student begins acting out? Will there be mental health and spiritual professionals available to help students reason through all the ACEs they deal with on an everyday basis? Will schools work to provide support for teachers who must understand the challenges that they and their students face every day in the classroom?
As I work up the courage to go visit a former student’s family, I can only imagine what her mother is going through. I will visit her older siblings who were my students or students in schools where I taught. I will remember the hope they had for their little sister because they were behind her 100% for doing good in life. I shall remember all my students and their stories because ACEs and mental health are real issues that need to be at the forefront of America’s conversation about how we can help elevate children and families beyond the security level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.