Today was first session with a new group of teens in the program for at-risk students sponsored by my local Arts Council. In the past my work has been with incarcerated teens. This new group is different. They are at a continuation school for at-risk students. Some of them have been in and out of lock-up. Some of them are attending here while awaiting a court date. It’s not my first time working with these type of a group but it was my first visit to the particular school.
It was a hard and horrible day that broke my heart.
The first few visits, sometimes as many as 5 or 6, are all about connecting with the kids. Letting them know they aren’t going to scare me away. That I’m going to keep coming back. That I’m going to listen to their stories and encourage their stories and help them tell their stories. I expect them to act up. I expect them to test me. I expect them to tell me they can’t write, that they’re no good at and that they just don’t want to do it. But I also expect them to eventually, even under protest, to put down a word or two, even if it’s foul language.
With this class I never stood a chance.
20+ kids funneled into the room wearing their bad attitudes like suits of armor. Their eyes blazed at me mostly in anger, some in disgust. They were loud and moving around and ignoring the teacher and ignoring me. There was never a moment of silence for me to step into and try to talk. The teacher turned the lights off but all that did was cause them to act up more. She tried again with the same results. I don’t know if she said anything. I don’t remember hearing anything.
Normally when there is a lot of noise in the class I can slap a book on the desk for attention. When I tried that today they laughed. Then they started swearing at me and flipping me off.
I have never missed an armed guard in the room more than I did today.
Still I tried. I passed out brand new folders with a few sheets of college-ruled paper in them. College-ruled paper is a big deal to these kids, just like the kids in jail. Normally they get the wide-ruled paper and they tell me it makes them feel like they are back in elementary school. Like they’re not good enough for real paper. One girl opened the folder and saw the paper and then looked at me. “All this paper is for me to use? It’s so nice. Thank you.” Her joy at such a simple gift gave me a shot of courage to continue.
I tried to talk. I got out a sentence. Maybe two. They turned their backs on me and started talking to each other loudly, making more rude comments. I searched my brain for something, anything to get their attention. I had nothing. I had stories to tell them but they wouldn’t listen. I walked around the room, looking at them, trying to make eye contact, asking a question or two. They laughed and made more rude comments. They told me they were here because they didn’t want to do anything and that I couldn’t make them. Of course everything was accented with more colorful language.
And they were right. I failed.
Standing there and letting them heap garbage words on me wouldn’t do either of us any good. So when the teacher brought the principal in and asked me if I wanted to go to another room I couldn’t help it. I nodded. I couldn’t do it. Not with these kids. Not with this group.
As I gathered up the folders there was one boy at the front who kept saying, “Not me. I wasn’t acting up.” And I told him no, you were fine. You did good. It was little enough to offer. But it wasn’t enough. Not for me.
It’s the first time I have ever walked away from a group.
They moved me to another class. Less students. More focus. More of what I expected. Not a lot of interest. Not a lot of attention but they did participate. They all read out loud and all but one came to the front of the room to do it. That was big. They didn’t believe me when I told them about how I used to be so afraid when I did public speaking I had to add in extra time to throw-up before I went on stage.
We did little poems. Acrostics to help me get to know who they were. They picked a word and described it using the five senses. And right away one of them got it. He thought outside of the box. He used beautiful and specific words. Then another one spoke up without prompting, sharing her thoughts. I told them we’d be doing more things like this when I came back tomorrow and there were no groans, no complaints. I wanted to cry. I was so happy.
When my time was up I went back to the first class because the principal wanted to have the kids apologize to me. This time the room was silent but the hostility level was still high. I could feel it when I walked back in. The principal made a formal apology to me and a few of the students hollered out an “I’m sorry.” But mostly they sat there and listened to the principal tell them how embarrassed she was, how hard she had worked for this program to be able to come to her school, and how, because of their actions today, they had lost the opportunity to work with me. They lost the opportunity to see their work on the walls of the museum. They lost the chance, for today, to be heard. As she spoke, I watched those kids slid down farther in their chairs. No one said a word.
I know the principal had to come down on them. They had been out of control and she was doing her job as best she could with what she had to deal with at that moment.
But I felt my heart breaking as listened. I thought about that girl who was looking forward to writing on real grown-up paper. I thought about that one kid who wanted me to know that he hadn’t been acting up. I thought about how every one of those kids was going to leave class today and go home to another place where they might not be heard.
I told them I was sorry too. I told them I was sorry I wasn’t going to get the chance to work with them, to help them tell their stories. I told them that every one of them was a person of value, that they all had stories to tell, and that it was important that they tell them. I said their stories might come out in conversations with a friend. A letter they write. A love poem. I told them the world needed to hear what they had to say and that I hoped one day find a way to tell their stories in an appropriate way.
And then I left.
I walked through the office and past a lounge where teachers gathered to ask me if I was going come back the next day. It had never dawned on me that I could say no. No one would have blamed me if I had.
In the corner of the room was a girl from the new class they gave me. I told the teachers that student had done good work today and the girl smiled. I told her about the museum exhibit and how her work would be on the walls for everyone to see.
Her mouth formed a surprised “O” and she said, “Really?”
I nodded and smiled back at her.
Would I be back tomorrow? Of course I would.
That was so moving. This old chook has tears in her eyes. I admire you so much for handling that episode with dignity and for accepting that you couldn’t get anywhere with the first group. You are an inspiration, Susan.
Thank you. It was so very hard to walk away. So very hard.
I am amazed by your courage- it sounds like a scary situation to approach, in so many ways. You are doing tremendous work, reaching out to these kids and you are making a difference in their lives. Thank you!
Thank you for the kind words. Although I’ve worked in maximum security prisons, worked with a great many murderers and felons, this is the first time I’ve ever been a little bit afraid. Now I am mostly sad.
I wonder if the kids in your first class should/would like to hear the story of your day. You write of the events with such grace and understanding. Maybe that would help them.
Anyhow, you were THERE. And one of those kids at least, noticed.
That’s an interesting thought, Sara. Perhaps I can share some of it with them.
This post actually hurt to read. I applaud your efforts to give your time and yourself to these kids. I keep thinking about the girl i the first class who was pleased with the college-ruled paper. I never realized that such small things are important. I think that image of that girl, opening her folder, will stay with me a long time.
Candice, this was one of those that hurt to write because to write it I had to relive it. The college-ruled paper was a surprise to me the first time I heard it too.
What an incredibly sad story. I am in awe of what you do with these kids, Susan. I can’t help but wonder what in their life is so awful that it fuels such defiance and hostility.
Thank you, Mary Beth. Every time I go into one of these classes I wonder how I am going to do it again. And like you, I often ponder what their home lives must be like in order to create such feelings in them.
Thanks for sharing your first day, Susan. You are incredibly brave and I’m so awestruck by your patience and composure. It takes such a special person to work with at-risk kids. I do feel sad for the kids in the first class, who missed a rare opportunity to be heard and work with you.
Thank you, Jama. I don’t feel very patient or composed at all. 🙁 I, too, am sad for those who won’t be able to get some help finding their way with words. So sad.
Your post moved me so much: the individuals who did respond; the one who got it in your substitute class; and your determination and grace in what must be a very difficult situation.
Thank you. It’s all so very hard and I feel very lost at the moment.
This post warmed my heart. You’re doing more good there than you know.
Thank you. I’d like to think so but thus far, this has been a hard week.
It takes such dedication and focus to do what you are doing, and the surface never indicates what is underneath the exterior. It makes you feel sorry for the ones that tried as well as for the ones who don’t know how to try, because the bulk in the middle are just followers.
I’ll look forward tohearing more.
So very true that so many are followers. My heart hurts for all of them.
Thank you for sharing this with us. It was hard to read, my heart pounded and my stomach was clenched, but I had to keep going. I had to follow your grace and dignity.
You’re doing extraordinary work, but that’s not surprising since you’re an extraordinary person. Thank you for sharing yourself with those kids.
Thank you, Tracy. Sometimes I wish I could put you in my pocket and carry you around with me. You are such a great cheerleader.
Consider me there. In your pocket. Cheering you on in your acts of courage.
Oh, Susan, I’m so sorry. Sometimes there are things that just can’t be done, that we can’t do. Doesn’t make it any easier.
I can accept that there are some things that can’t be done but man, it’s hard to accept that there are things I can do with and for these kids. And you’re right, it doesn’t make it any easier.
Sorry to hear you had such a difficult day – truly, it sounds as if you did the best you could with that group. Once a group reaches a certain critical mass of trouble-makers, nobody can turn it around, really.
Yep, that’s about what it was, critical mass of mean that was about to explode. Not pretty.
Sorry you had such a hard day!
You have a big heart, Susan, and though it may not have been apparent, I’m sure you touched some of those kids. You inspire me, that’s for sure.
Thank you. I appreciate that.
Susan, your words are so powerful that I can see you there. I can see those kids. And I can feel the warmth of your courage and grace and honesty and love on the other side of the continent. I’ll bet they felt it, too. Keeping you in my heart…
Thank you, Amy. It means a lot to know I can paint the picture for others. Perhaps I can use that to help reach out to others who might be able to connect with these kids.
Oh, Susan. How hard. You didn’t fail them, though. Really you didn’t. You showed up, which I bet is more than could be said of some other people in their lives. You were receptive and then, in the end, had to take the high ground and step away from hostility. What you said got heard, I’m sure of it. It’s in there…
Thank you, Liz. So so so hard to walk away though. So very hard.
Thank you so much for going into these situations and trying to reach these children. I was teaching about Afghanistan today in the library. I was telling our privileged students that there are places in the world where children can not go to school and read books. My students can not even imagine this place! In this country we have schools, books and teachers and sometimes the children just don’t care. I am thankful that you are working with these students. Whether it is in a country far far away or right here the way to a brighter future is through education. You never know the effect of your work. Thank you for not giving up!
Thank you for your support. It’s so hard to keep going in without knowing if anything is connecting with them. One can only hope.
Very moved by this. I continue to be impressed with your dedication to groups like these – it’s so, so hard. (I have done workshops that hint at, that touch on, the kind of things you deal with constantly in yours – I couldn’t do what you do. Not at all, and not with the grace, compassion, wisdom and tremendous empathy you clearly have.)
Hang in there Susan. Good for you for having grace under fire and looking for ways to see where you can make a big difference. Hope today went better! Loved meeting you at Asilomar:) How did your conference go?
Thanks, Laura. It was wonderful to meet you too. I had a lovely time at the conference and came home with my personal compass reset. Just what I needed.
Yes, some things can’t be forced. I’m glad you got the chance to say what you said before you left. That one message–I will not shame you or curse you for not being ready for what I’m offering–was the lesson of the day, even if it wasn’t the lesson you originally went there to teach.
And you did find a class to work with!
Thank you, Jenn. I was really glad I got to say something at the end too. Alas, not so sure about the other class either. They added about 7 more kids today and it’s basically where they are dumping the kids who are being kicked out of other classes and that’s not going to work. We have one more shot on Thursday to see if another mix will work and if not, I might just end up being pulled from the school.
Oh, Susan, I’m sorry. What a heartbreaking day, and after you’ve been working so hard with these programs. But I’m glad that you found a class that you could work with, too. Sometimes we have to make a difference where we can, and accept that it’s not going to be everywhere. And you are making a difference for a lot of kids. Try to remember that.
Thank you, Jen. It really was a heartbreaking kind of day. And now the second class might not work either. We’ll give it another shot on Thursday but they might have to pull me from this school. I’m not supposed to spend half of my time dealing with discipline. Sigh. So very sad.
Wow! I felt like I was in a movie while reading that. So vivid. So heartbreaking. You are clearly gifted to reach kids like this – just the fact that you could keep your composure to teach another class right on the heels of that first experience is impressive.
And I have a feeling your words of closure and apology will not be forgotten.
Bless you for going back!
Thank you, Joyce.
I don’t know how much composure I had or that I was just in the zone or that I just couldn’t think of what to do next.
I do hope that my final words might stay with one or two of them…..I only need to reach one to make a change.
My heart was in my throat the whole time I was reading this! Good for you for being there in the first place, and good for you for going back in. The first class reminded me of the 8th grade class in Hawaii that ended my public school teaching career.