Today I reflected on social media as numerous former students of mine were graduating
(Wow! I feel old!) I was quickly overtaken by several emotions. I looked at the photos of several students in their caps and gowns. I remembered the elated feeling from my graduation day (See, contrary to my students’ beliefs, it really wasn’t THAT long ago.). I looked at their various facial expressions and recalled what they were like as elementary students. And this is when the emotions spiraled.
Let me first put into context the school where I taught. This is an urban school that appeared to have been forgotten by the district. There was no rhyme or reason to the chaos I witnessed there every day. My classroom door remained locked, and hallway bathroom breaks only happened when a teacher unlocked the doors. Violence was so engrained in the community that cops rarely showed up and the fights never seemed to surprise anyone. It was nothing to seen weapons pulled out, nor to see the fight be between an adult and an elementary student. This was our norm. This was the culture we were surviving in. And for many students, this was their safe haven. In case you’re wondering, the school was later taken over by a charter and no, the culture did not change because of that move (that’s a topic for another time!). Regardless of the toxic environment, as many referred to it, this was the place where I fought every day to provide quality education to the children (no matter how grown they thought they were) that entered my doorway.
There are some students that graduated and the path was clear from the primary grade level. Colleges are lined up and they are ready to venture out of a city where they’ve felt trapped for so many years. A student graduated from high school with multiple college acceptance letters after having to move back and forth between two states as her mother and sister shared custody. A month before gradation, one student gave birth to a son. She did not let this new path in life change her goal of graduating; she got to put on her cap and gown like the others. Then there’s the most intelligent student I ever encountered, who also probably had the most challenging home life I witnessed. As I imagined (though still had fears about because it’s a long path in the city from 5th grade to 12th), he graduated and is on his way to a state university. Another student is a father of two children, and yet he too was able to graduate from a local high school this year. Lastly, I share my greatest surprise. A student whom I had not heard from in 7 years called me last month to tell me he would be graduating and going to college. This was the most complex student I ever taught. He had enormous potential wrapped with an adrenaline rush for being on the streets. I invested so much of my heart into this child and tears rolled down my face when he explained that there came a point where he saw everything that was taking shape around him and he had to decide which path he wanted in life. I openly explained the joy I felt for his success and I cried again when I saw his graduation pictures this week.
Tears of joy had filled my eyes, but as the week’s texts and social media messages piled up, I also experienced tears of heartache. I went through student after student, seeing that too many times (even one is too many for me) life took a turn. The smiles and excitement from our 1970’s textbooks were erased due to frustration, anger and abuse. The children who were so innocent were eventually suffocated by violence, poverty and pain. Too many of my kids (I rarely refer to them as students because our connections were so much more than just academics – there was hope, encouragement, love, smiles, genuine explanations of life circumstances, deep family bonds…) took paths that hurt me because I know they have so much potential. They became statistics, and I honestly believe it is because they were never really given a chance at this puzzle we call ‘Life’. Throughout the years, the conversations we’ve shared or the presentations on social media have exposed multiple teenage childbirths, foul language, drug use, rape, abuse, hunger, abortions, violent attacks, multiple older sexual partners, homelessness, photos of minors with almost no clothing on, jail time and the list goes on. These facts brought about emotions of sadness, fear, worry, anger and many other negative feelings.
Seven years later, I look at the pictures of these children and I cannot find the sparkle that used to be in their eyes. The smiles have faded. The happiness seems lost. My heart aches. What could I have done differently? Why did we, as a society, fail these children? America… “the land of opportunity,” yet did these children really get an opportunity to make it in life? They were just CHILDREN! Not even teenagers! I could list the many things that I believe lead to this destruction of our youth, but that’s for another time. Right now I have to stop typing. I have to focus on those who graduated. I need to look at the cap and gown pictures and smile. I must remember the laughter we all shared seven years ago. Seven years. That’s such a short amount of time. Yet so many lives were completely changed. I must stop typing. Because now I’m wondering, is it too late? Will these children (18-years-old means nothing to me at this point) ever be able to turn things back around? Will the sparkle come back? Will the laughter bellow from their bellies? Will the hope reignite? Will the pain decrease? Will the anger fade away? Will the nightmares ever end? I’m overwhelmed. I’m in awe… of the good, and the bad.
Ahmeli… that society begins to once again nurture our children, our future, our hope.
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