Teachers, You Can Never Know the Demons Your Students Face, But There Is Something You Can Do to Help

This guest post is by an anonymous, Oakland-based educator.

One time my mom tried to kill me.

She chased me with a knife, cackling like a witch. It was hide-and-seek—but it wasn’t, it wasn’t a game. I trembled in a dark corner of the basement, which terrified me, but I was more terrified of her finding me. It was hours down there, in the dark.

She sometimes heard voices, and sometimes those voices would tell her to do very bad things.

But as a child, it’s just the two of you, hard to make sense of what is what, and this the person you love most, admire most and still do.

And that time with the knife, she later told me, the demonic voices were telling her to kill me. That is when she had to banish them.

That is how I lived. It wasn’t like that every day, and I love my moms, of course—but there were these episodes. You come home and all your stuffed animals are burning in a pile in the backyard—they were talking to your mom, they were evil, so she burned them. The cross that hung over your bed disappeared, it’s a sign, you rush out of the house and stay in hotel for a night.

She self-medicated. She drank, but she would never take medication. A proud Black woman, she would say she’d “never be a slave to a drug.” So she never took any drugs that might have helped her.

She would binge-drink and once I understood the symptoms of being drunk, I would scour the house and pour what alcohol I found down the drain. Thankfully she wasn’t a mad drunk and she never came after me, but I would pour every drop of alcohol out because she would drink it if I didn’t.

Her health got worse and eventually she was completely disabled. Life got worse for me too, struggling with where to sleep, among other struggles.

Thing is, nobody ever knew. About any of this. Nobody at school. Really nobody. I was good at just keeping it all in. Telling people my mom was “at the hospital” when they asked where she was, since she obviously wasn’t at the house I was often sleeping in. She worked in health care, so I wasn’t lying, but they just assumed she was working.

Many children live in a similar world of insecurity or fear, with their protector haunted by demons. But that is the only world you have as a child—or at least it is better than your other choices. And you learn early on to keep that world private and invisible to the outside world. Even though I was active and well-known at school, I was very alone, like so many children living through the mental health or substance challenges of their parents. Desperately trying not to attract any attention. Holding those secrets close.

One of my coaches pulled me aside once and tried to talk about my escalating drug use. Really gently, he talked about how his own child had a disability and he would have hated to have done something to be responsible. Even as a teen I understood the message. He had heard something and he cared enough to just talk to me. I appreciated that. I didn’t stop using drugs, and it didn’t relieve any of the underlying issues, but it mattered and I felt a little less alone. That was the closest any adult got to me.

Every educator likely has kids whose parents have serious mental health challenges and/or substance abuse issues. Chances are, they also have young people facing down their own mental health demons.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of adults live with a mental illness and 1 in 25 have serious mental illnesses. These numbers vary by race and other factors, as does the likelihood of getting treatments. And half of all chronic mental health issues materialize before age 14. Furthermore, roughly 1 in 10 Americans over 12 needed treatment for a drug or alcohol problem according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

I studied psychology in college, because I wanted to understand if I was having mental health issues. Instead, I ended up in education. I don’t have the answers here, but I do have some simple advice for other educators, which is…you just don’t know.

You don’t know what some or many of your students are struggling through, things that might literally be life or death, or the more subtle wearing down of a kid’s psychological defenses. You really don’t. And you probably won’t.

But you can create environments where children are physically and psychologically safe. Where they will be known and cared for. Where basic needs are always met and more complex ones are increasingly met.

There is an invisible world educators interact with every day, because as children we learn to hide things from the world. I know there are things that I should but will never know about my students, but that doesn’t mean I still can’t act. We need to support that invisible plane that students sometimes exist on, even without seeing it, but knowing it is always there.

And I have also learned that persistent caring matters, just being there enough, asking for the 100th time how a child is doing even if they said “fine” 99 times. Just showing that I care for their well-being consistently in bigger or smaller ways. And sometimes kids will talk, and share, and that can help.

Whether children are struggling with their parent’s demons or their own, nobody wants to face them alone.

 

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Schools to Celebrate- Fostering Wellness on Staten Island

People said we were crazy when we applied to start John W. Lavelle Prep Charter in Staten Island.   It was a college prep middle school that would cater to students with emerging mental health challenges.  There were no other models to look at in NY, and these kids often faced immense challenges.  This is what charter schools were designed for.

They said we were crazy, literally, the “crazy team for the crazy kids.”  Lavelle was one of my Charter Incubator’s first clients.  I use client loosely, because these teams usually have no money, so we worked for free in the hope that at some point we can get paid.  My authorizer friend called us the St. Jude of non-profits—reserving our efforts for hopeless cases.  But we saw hope here.

The team had hit roadblocks in getting approved, several unsuccessful rounds, with opaque reasons for not being approved.  We did have a few political cards to play and got a meeting with the State official that was resistant.  They told us they would never approve a charter with such a high percentage of special education students because, “the normal kids would not have role models.”

I was biting my tongue to stop from biting this person’s head off, it was hard but I made it.  We went with an open lottery and got approved, did affirmative outreach, and got our sped percentage to 33%.  But as I tell our teams, that’s then the real work starts, the chartering is the easy part.

It has not been easy.  It’s never easy.

There were no big funders knocking at the door, we had some great local support, but while we showed outstanding student progress, our overall proficiency numbers are lower than Staten Island’s.  Our kids are demographically very different, much higher sped numbers, higher free and reduced, and many more African American kids.  And we had kids being hospitalized, holding their spots until they came back.

This year is our first graduation, 12 students graduating with Regents Diplomas, everyone (100%) with a college acceptance, and I turned my paying gig into a volunteer opportunity, joining the Board.  We received a second charter for an over-aged under-credited school , that re-engages students through careers.  We are working on a residential portion for our most challenged students, an autism inclusion program, a sober and sobriety supportive component, a culinary arts program that will target English learners, and a range of other niches to meet the needs that are going unmet.  Yeah we are crazy.

National Charter week is always an ambivalent time for me.  I hear frauds, or at least tainted heroes (in my opinion) expounding their successes, in yarns that tell only half the story, with kids often paraded as props.

While those real heroes, doing the day to day work—and the hard work– with the children, that others (charters and district schools) would rather pass down the line, toil to make things better for children.

So as tassels turn on Staten Island this summer, I can unapologetically raise my glass to the amazing work that the staff, board and community have done to make a crazy dream into a supportive reality for children who may have been lost.  And I look forward to more craziness.

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Hearing the Silent Screams of Students Before It’s Too Late

It was a short note.  “I am sorry, I am not dropping out but I won’t be coming back to school, thank you for everything, I’m sorry.”

But it activated a red alert at the school, immediate calls to family, and a staff member dispatched to do a home visit.

The student had overdosed on their prescription meds, quaffing the whole bottle.  They were found in time and are recovering.

The signs of distress are easy to miss.  I have missed them myself before.  But this time we got it.

These are the real stories of our schools and children.

Sadness, depression, mental health struggles and hopeful recoveries.  Though they often don’t end so happily.  And these students need help.

The statistics are clear here

  • Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (2013 CDC WISQARS)
  • More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED.
  • Each day in our nation there are an average of over 5,400 attempts by young people grades 7-12.
  • Four out of Five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs

This highlights the need for attuned staff that can read between the lines of a muffled cry for help.  Who take time to understand what this child is trying to say even when they don’t utter the words.

A Missed Cry and Lost Child

One of my most painful and enduring memories is the cry I missed.  It’s hard to even write about it years later.  He was one of my favorite kids, forged in extreme hardship…extreme hardship.  He had been expelled from a District school for pulling a knife on a child who was harassing him about his murdered mother.  And our charter embraced him.

He was one of those kids with a pure heart, you wonder how he maintained it given everything he had been through, but there was an earnestness to this child that is usually suffocated, that breathed large.  But he had learned some bad habits, and after long deliberations we moved him to another building, and another class.

He didn’t do well there, a couple of times, I was called as the resident lawyer to help him negotiate cop problems.  And back then they were just waiting for our kids—they had these unmarked cars and they would just watch the kids and note who they hung with and assume they were gang affiliated.

He took his own life that summer, cut his wrists and hung himself to be sure.

We missed the signs, the muffled cries, that went silent.  The screams that he never released.

I am sad, but I always think of that child, and in his community the beliefs are not so much that people pass from this world, but that the ancestors are with us.

And when I am tired, sick and tired, frustrated, or just want to do something easier, I know this child is sitting over my shoulder and hoping that I do better.  That I listen more, that I am more empathetic.

And I am listening, and while it’s deeply troubling to see the pain that these kids hold, we are doing better.  And at least in this case we heard the cry before it was too late.  I just hope we can all be better listeners going forward.