What It Takes

How do you think the following story ends?

A six-year-old child is sexually assaulted by her stepfather. Her mother is not literate, and her family lives in poverty. She suffers both physical and psychological problems from the abuse she endured. She experiences a psychotic episode in third grade and is sent to a facility an hour’s drive from her town.

Four years later, here is the same girl:

She is confident and happy. She is considering a career as a police officer, though her mom thinks she should become a nurse, and her teacher thinks she should be a doctor. She plans to go to college.

How did this child get from there to here? How did she write a new story for her life?

How do you think the following story ends?

A six-year-old child is sexually assaulted by her stepfather. Her mother is not literate, and her family lives in poverty. They have one book in their home. She begins second grade reading on a kindergarten level. She suffers both physical and psychological problems from the abuse she endured. She experiences a psychotic episode in third grade and is sent to a facility an hour’s drive from her town.

Four years later, here is the same girl:

She is confident and happy. She is considering a career as a police officer, though her mom thinks she should become a nurse, and her teacher thinks she should be a doctor. She has made dramatic growth as a reader, writer, mathematician, scientist, and thinker. She smiles now. She plans to go to college.

How did this child get from there to here? How did she write a story that seems unrealistic given the obstacles stacked against her?

 

Changing the story

Part of the answer is that elusive quality of resilience, persistence, and “grit” that led a low-income Latina girl from the Bronx to become a Supreme Court Justice, and the biracial son of a single mother to become the President of the United States.

This child has courage, goodness, and a vision for her life.

But it took a hell of a lot to nurture and protect that spirit. Here is a partial list:

*She had caring, skilled teachers throughout elementary school and middle school. These teachers saw her as more than her poverty or abuse. But they also realized she would need more time, attention, and support than a student without such brutal barriers to a fulfilling life.

*She had a principal who realized the same things. This principal kept an eye on her every day and every week, and she communicated directly with the principal at the middle school to keep that support going past fifth grade. When this student was sent to a facility for violent children, her principal called the coordinator there to make sure our school would get her back when she was released. The coordinator was confused. In 17 years of her job, she had never had a principal try to get a child back. Usually, given the problems and needs of children sent to this facility, principals wanted to make sure the child would be sent somewhere else.

*This student had access to all kinds of services that a school should not have to provide, but does. She took backpacks of food home on weekends so she wouldn’t go hungry when the school wasn’t open to provide breakfast and lunch. She went to a school-based RN who made sure her physical needs were met. She had a wonderful counselor from first through fifth grade who bought her pajamas for Pajama Day since she didn’t own any. The same counselor took her shopping for new clothes when she had to go through the wrenching experience of testifying in court against her abuser, while he sat across from her in the courtroom.

*She benefited from a home library project that filled her shelves with books and helped her to make two years of growth in a single year. Last week she came to a family literacy event at our school with her little brothers and sister. She smiled the whole time.

 

The end of the story

This student’s story isn’t over. It isn’t entirely in the hands of the school system, either.

When House Republicans revealed their budget this month, they revealed how they truly feel about children living in poverty by cutting food stamps. Last week, this student and her little sister were woken by gunshots in a gang-related shooting that left another former student at our school dead at age 18. Sandy Hook wasn’t enough for Congress to pass background checks, and in my own state, the legislature has proposed new laws to make it possible to carry firearms onto college campuses and preschool parking lots.

If this student is going to attend college, she’s going to need the adults in her life to keep watching over her every step of the way. Her elementary principal, middle school principal, and high school principal will have to get together to talk about her needs. She will need someone to guide her through the complicated process of applying to college, and she will need financial support for tuition and every other expense.

If all that happens, she will prove an excellent college student. She will go on to become an excellent nurse, doctor, police officer, or teacher. Her childhood abuse and poverty will never vanish. But she will lead a triumphant life, and she will keep smiling.

 

The lives they dream

What does her story teach us?

That resilience is real. That children can overcome almost anything. That while their teachers may be an example to them, these courageous young students are also an example to us.

That schools do a lot more than teach kids to fill in bubbles on standardized tests. That while we may take the blame for society’s fundamental inequities, we are often the only ones standing there to catch lost children as they fall.

We seek to help children live the lives they dream. Sometimes, despite everything, we succeed.

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