Those darned kids
I consider myself somewhat of an expect on teenagers. I was a teenager once although I’m so old I barely remember those years. But even then, I was very interested in politics. I watched as my heroes John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were murdered in their prime. I could only watch as the civil rights movement unfolded on my television. I could only watch as students took to the streets to protest the Viet Nam War. I grew up in a small conservative southeastern New Mexico town, far away from the protests at the University of New Mexico, a hotbed of dissension. But I was very vocal about my antiwar views, as were many of my classmates. My friends and I became very knowledgeable about the political issues plaguing us and frequently discussed politics in classes and the cafeteria at lunch. In fact, the senior social studies class was called Problems in American Democracy and our “textbook” was Time magazine and various newspapers. The roots of my activism were nurtured during my teen years.
I was the mother of teenagers, both of whom have grown up to be politically savvy and participants in protest movements. I am the grandmother of teens, who like their mother and aunt, are very politically astute. I also taught teenagers for 30 years, 20 of those years I taught juniors and seniors. Over my career I probably taught close to 5000 teenagers, and the first students I taught are now 63 years old. So while I am very impressed with the Parkland students and other students across America who have joined them, I am not at all surprised by the movement they have started.
Years ago, I lost one of my students in a horrific traffic accident when a drunk driver veered into his mother’s car, hitting it head on at a high speed. Tito was a popular student with both students and teachers. He was a friendly, polite, funny young man who was thoroughly enjoying his senior year. He had ridden the team bus with the other cheerleaders to a basketball game in a town about an hour and a half away, but he received permission to ride home with his mother and little sister. The accident happened about halfway between the two towns, and the team bus filled with his friends passed the twisted wreck on its way home. The kids saw the carnage and recognized the car. Days after Tito’s death, the students formed Students Against Drunk Drivers. The deeply felt grief among the faculty and students lasted the rest of the year, but the students did not let that feeling keep them from taking action. So, no, I am not surprised by the Parkland students.
This is what many adults don’t understand about teenagers. They can be very defiant. Sometimes that trait can be irritating if you’re a parent or teacher, because kids can be so stubborn in their resistance. Often, though, their defiance is firmly grounded in righteousness and indignation as they observe adults’ hypocrisy. They have no inhibitions in calling out an adult for a double standard or standing up for their own position. Pity the poor parent or teacher who hasn’t learned to deal with teenagers who make their indignation known.
Teens are inherently anti-authoritarian. Of course, most are usually compliant until an issue arises that is important to them, but when they do rise up, Katy bar the door. Even the President of the United States will not impress them if he or she is on the wrong side of an issue that is important to teens. I hate the phrase “politically incorrect” because to many it means being openly racist and bigoted, so with that in mind, kids can be politically incorrect in a positive way. They haven’t been conditioned yet by the adult world to stifle their words and thoughts. Their honesty can be refreshing and sometimes painful. It’s like every thought in their brains comes out of their mouths. So, no the kids from Douglas High School don’t surprise me.
Nor does it surprise me that politicians are avoiding the high school students, because so many adults are intimidated and even afraid of teenagers. Most adults who were hired to substitute refused to go the high school. Even parents of teenagers would tell me that they couldn’t understand how I could face 150 teenagers every day. I remember vividly when the mayor spoke at an assembly at my high school, and I was seated behind the podium watching him speak. His body was visibly shaking from nervousness.
Teenagers are also tech savvy and can cruise around the internet with ease. Because of that skill, they know what the issues are, and believe me, they have opinions about those issues. As we have seen, teenagers are also very adept at using social media. Teenagers today are so much more sophisticated that we were in my day but no less passionate.
I am also impressed but not surprised by their well-reasoned arguments against teachers being armed. Their arguments are my arguments, and I’m sure they convey the same opinions of most teachers across the nation. The teens I’ve heard also express my same dismay about Trump’s convoluted rationale concerning arming teachers. I would have walked away from the profession and kids I loved if teachers carried guns into their classrooms.
During my 30 years as an educator, I taught with a number of unstable teachers. In one district where I taught, we had to take a psychological test and submit to a background check, and, yet, we had a child molester, a convicted felon who stabbed her husband, and another teacher who was found wandering and babbling incoherently in the student parking lot—all at the high school in the same year. Can you imagine any of them being armed? A few years ago an elementary school teacher in Utah accidentally discharged her weapon, shooting herself in the leg. The bullet could have easily ricocheted and hit a student in the school’s bathroom. Someone tweeted this week that we’ve all seen a teacher “lose it” over a small incident and rage at a student or even an entire classroom. Now, imagine that teacher being armed.
Teachers are not perfect. We are human beings after all, but most of us are passionate about our students and subject matter. That was so true for me. But too many teachers simply are not trained to deal with the damaged students that come into our classrooms every day. Back in 1985 I was moved out of the classroom into an administrative position as Director of Student and Employee Assistance. The students’ program was grant funded by both the federal and state governments. I had one secretary and a counselor paid by a larger nonprofit organization that provides free medical and mental health services throughout New Mexico. The three of us were charged with providing service to nearly 12000 students. This program or similar ones should be in every school district in America.
First, we trained every employee from custodians to the superintendent in an intense three-day training. We trained employees to identify students who were seriously distressed, whether because of substance abuse or physical abuse. I always had a therapist on call during the trainings because by the end of the the three days several employees were looking at their own issues and needed professional help. Some came to grips with their own addictions or their dysfunctional, abusive childhood. Like in so many helping professions, teaching is filled with folks from dysfunctional backgrounds, but that’s for another post.
Each school had a team made up of teachers and other staff who took referrals about students from staff. After collecting as much information on a student as members could, the team met to make a recommendation. Most students were referred to in-school support groups facilitated by teachers and counselors who had been through a five-day training. We had children as young as six in support groups. Some students were referred to professional therapists and parents were referred to our parent support group. Some students were sent to inpatient addiction facilities and then to half-way houses. Kids used to say if Mrs. Wellman pulls a student out of class, he or she will disappear for at least six months. In fact, I was more feared than my husband, the dean of students. When students came back, they participated in a student recovery group as well as AA or NA and multi-family therapy groups run by a licensed therapist. More importantly, most of these kids came back healthy and eager to continue their education.
As word circulated about our program, students began to self-refer. Before I knew it, we formed support groups for pregnant teens and teen mothers and fathers. We set up support groups for rape victims, domestic abuse victims, and those with eating disorders. We were among the first professionals to identify “battered wife syndrome” among high school girls who were beaten their boyfriends. The program was a success because we trained the staff, who then bought into our program. Guidance counselors cannot provide all the services students need because so much of their time is spent with scheduling, not counseling.
Grant money simply wasn’t enough to cover all the expenses we incurred, so as our program’s reputation spread, I began traveling to New Mexico and Colorado school districts to train their staff. The fees I charged went into the fund to pay the therapists. School districts from Texas, Oklahoma, and Arizona sent staff to our trainings as participants. At the end of every training, I would tell staff, “The most unlovable students are the very ones who need our love the most.”
Absences, substance use, and discipline referrals dropped as did the dropout rate. But then the grant money dried up and the program came to an end. I left before it was disbanded and move to another NM town where my husband accepted a principal’s position at a middle school. I was happy to go back into the classroom. The six years as director drained me emotionally and physically. One of the last students referred to me was a tiny nine-year-old whose sweet face was sprinkled with freckles. She calmly told me about the physical abuse she suffered, including being thrown down a flight of stairs, which resulted in a fractured neck. She looked at me with her soulful eyes and said, “‘I’ve had a very rough life.’” I decided then that I could not keep running the program. I was done—burned out. I carried too many tragic stories in my heart.
We settled into our new home, and I was thrilled to be teaching juniors and seniors at the high school. My husband, however, was not as thrilled. He had a very uptight faculty who saw kids as either good or bad, so he asked me to train his faculty. He said they needed an intervention. I was so reluctant to do it because I was happy being a teacher again, but he was unrelenting. Finally, I gave in and trained his faculty. Let me be clear. The material for the training is powerful. It gives the teachers real tools that will help their students. I was only the messenger. The training transformed the faculty, and most wanted to be trained to facilitate student support groups. Groups were set up and when the director of a charity in town heard about them, the chairwoman offered to set up after school programs, such as a chess club, music and dance lessons, and babysitting classes. After the third year, my husband’s school was awarded NM Outstanding Middle School.
Our schools are woefully underfunded, and teachers do not have the resources to help their students. If a student is working late into the night to help support his family, he or she is not alert in the classroom. If a student is afraid to go home in the afternoon because of the abuse that awaits him or her, reading Macbeth hardly a priority. Often these distressed students fall so far behind their peers, they drop out. And many become Nicholas Cruzes.
My point is we need a revolution in our public schools and not just around keeping our kids safe from mass murderers. We need to give students the resources they need to be as happy and healthy as they can be and grow to their full potential. We need to give teachers the training, resources, and support to help their students reach that potential. The kids are leading us, and let’s not miss this opportunity to make a difference in our local schools.
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