Homelessness, abuse, neglect, hunger, poverty, violence, gangs, abandonment, assault, prostitution, drug addiction – it goes on. These tragedies are normalized aspects of my students’ lives. These overwhelmingly large barriers to health, success, and development have cast shadows over their light for most of their existence. They can’t see beyond them.
Until they come to us.
Until a cop picks them up, puts them in handcuffs, brings them to the Detention Facility and they are stripped of their clothing and belongings, searched, and put in scrubs.
They are locked in cinderblock cells on hard beds whose mattresses make those thin ones you always complained about at sleepaway camp look like luxury.
They are in their rooms for enough time to get the Physician-recommended 8 hours of sleep and then some. To stare at the walls and process what brought them to us, and what their future might hold.
They come out, one by one, for breakfast every morning. Pitchers of clean water are at their tables. At school they are in classes with 3 to 8 peers, getting the kind of accommodation, scaffolding, and attention they so desperately needed and didn’t get at some critical point in their education. They get snack between 2nd and 3rd period. They get lunch between 3rd and 4th period, time to talk with their peers at their tables where they’re seated for safety and community. After school they go up to their rooms, where they get to nap before coming out for rec, dinner, and community groups. Throughout the day they get called for meetings with lawyers, guardians, our phenomenal counselor, or they initiate talks with the State Staff who help them commit to safety plans, talk through issues, resolve conflicts, or just listen.
They are surrounded by established, emotionally balanced adults who are invested in their well-being. Not only that, but these adults also maintain and build healthy, positive relationships with each other.
For however brief their time with us may be, many of these residents are finally set up for success for the first time in their lives. They earn accolades and privileges. They go from coming down and withdrawal, to being leaders and joys in class. They build relationships and skills for dealing with conflict. They learn and engage in higher-level thinking. They are supported in everything they do. For many of them, they are the closest to the best version of themselves they have ever been…or will ever be.
Then, they leave. They are taken to group homes where they are surrounded by kids who are struggling with the same issues and unhealthy emotional, physical or psychological tendencies. Or they are committed and sent to facilities that train them to succeed and survive within the justice system, from Juvenile facilities to prison. Or they are sent home. Back to the house, the family, the friends, the community, that influenced them to make the poor decision they made that brought them to us.
No matter what the decision is, we often anticipate seeing them again. But no matter what the decision is, I try to make a point of saying goodbye when I know departure is coming, and I say with a smile “I sincerely hope I never see you again.”
Every odd is against them. The people who have made their best self attainable, are forbidden from any contact for 5 years in most facilities. Their only support system and safety, is only available if they mess up again.
It is immensely humbling to encounter these souls when they are the closest to their best self, and know that the world will only seek to undo the work we’ve done. So I treasure the moments we have, and hope that they’ll be the exception.