Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Not in Our Community, Not in Our Schools

Their Voices.

I have read a lot of books about kids from impoverished areas making it out of the ghetto. Kids who go to school with gun detectors, bars on the windows in gang-ridden neighborhoods. I work with kids in an affluent neighborhood in the Paradise Valley/Scottsdale, AZ area. The skies are sunny most of the year and the school sits against a beautiful mountain.

As I drive into the parking lot the image of kids playing on the playground against a mountainside is picturesque. The atmosphere is quiet, well-maintained, and orderly. There aren’t a lot of stories about the kids I work with. Most of these kids come from privileged upper-middle class families.

Even though I haven't worked at a school before, I already know that abuse and neglect are not socioeconomic.

As I enter the office during my first week, I see a boy curled in a ball on the floor by the door. I have to step over him to get through the door. He has acted out in class again and has been sent to the office, again. As I crouch down to talk to him, he pretends he is asleep. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a psychologist to see that he is very angry. He won’t look me in the eye; he keeps looking at the clock. He tells me that he wants to kill his teacher, the other kids at school. He tells me he has a lot of options—he can run away from the school, or punch a teacher. He says he likes to make bombs and play violent video games. He is angry with his teacher because she said he did something that he didn’t do. She wouldn’t listen to him so he got underneath his desk. That’s why he got sent to the office.

Unsolicited he tells me that he wrote on his arms and face with marker so he could kill himself. He heard that markers are toxic and can get in your bloodstream and kill you. He talks about playing with kids who like to make bombs and that he doesn’t like the kids at this school. He wants to go home and play with his violent video games. After a while he starts to look at me.

During lunch I play a game of pick up stix with him and he lets me go first. He tells me that he makes a growling face and hisses when he is really angry. I ask him to show me and he says that he isn’t really angry at me. I smile. After a few minutes playing the game he is subdued, compliant, and seems to be having fun.

A teacher (specialist) he has never met comes in, asks me to leave, and tells him he has to shape up and stop threatening people. He tells her she can’t tell him what to do. She says that she is going to call his mom and tell her to take away his video games if he doesn’t behave. He says he wants to call his mom. He leaves her a message. His voice shakes from anger and he is yelling into the phone that she can’t listen to this lady. That she can’t do this to him.

As a result of this heated "lecture" from a woman he has never met, he has transformed from a playful child into a wild animal. He hangs up, stands in a corner, and growls and hisses at the teacher. This is obviously the angry face he told me about. He says he wants to go out to recess and leave the room. There is a back door in the room that leads outside. He starts inching toward the door, ready to run. She threatens that if he goes out the door she will call the police. He yells that she can’t keep him here. She comes toward him and he opens the door and runs outside.

I look out the window and see the staff chasing this young boy. The police are called and apprehend him. He is expelled for 3 days and comes back to school for a while. His mother realizes that the school will keep expelling him until he is placed in a different school. She doesn’t want to move him from the school but after some more expulsions she removes him. He is gone and no one knows where he went.

I see a young, beautiful, blue-eyed girl who was exposed to meth in Utero. No one seems to know the extent of her exposure in utero or once born. The mom was known to be addicted to Meth and left the daughter with a relative. She is developmentally delayed and acts out in class when she doesn’t get her way. She likes to wear the same bright pink skirt to school and she always compliments me on my outfits and shoes. She likes to giggle and talk about her " rainbow house". She is always trying to talk and giggle with the other girls in my group.

She likes hugs and to hold my hand. Her face lights up when she sees me and she waves to me whenever I pass her. If I send her back to recess with the other girls she may wander aimlessly around the school. She has trouble concentrating and understanding questions I ask her. If I teach a simple lesson and ask her a simple question about it she can't answer.

I see a girl who has given up on herself, already. When your own parent doesn't want you around it is hard to care about yourself. She does not complete homework assignments. She says she forgets what they are and that she doesn’t have a computer to check on the school’s website. She can’t keep track of what she needs to do. Today, she told me that she likes to be "sordove" mean. When I ask why she says, "cuz my mom is so mean, so I know how to do it."

She told me that one weekend her mom came to where she was staying and told her the house was a mess. She yelled at her for leaving a jump rope on floor, picked it up and it her with the handle. The girl went to her room and cried and her mom stormed out disgusted. That day, the girl says, was her birthday. After she told me these things about her mom I called CPS. The lady manning the hotline told me that if I can’t report a physical injury (bruise or cut) they can't take action. She said I should just keep looking for an injury and then call back.

I tried to find some services myself and heard about a great family program. The Regional Director told me that they only serve families 20 blocks south of the school. The school and the neighborhood this girl lives in is evidently too close to the affluent part of the City. I also researched the McKinney Vento Act for homeless children but she is not homeless. She lives in a home and her "home" is not in the right neighborhood for services.

She is slipping through the cracks. We all know it but we don’t know what to do. When I look in her eyes and see her small smile I know that she has given up on herself. She knows what lies ahead for her. Teachers tell her what she should do, social workers tells her what she should not do, but she does not believe she can succeed in a world where she must rely on herself, to take care of herself. I think she has tried and it didn’t make her mother love her. She has lost hope and I don’t know how to give it to her.

I see an academically gifted young boy. He seems to annoy the other kids. He says inappropriate things, picks his nose, and farts. He seems to have no idea why no one likes him. One day I went to get him at lunch and he was yelling and crying. He was really angry because the other kids were trying to talk to him and he didn’t want anyone to talk to him. I think the other kids were just talking amongst themselves or were trying to include him. He wanted to be left alone. A little later he became really sad and when I asked him why he said because no one liked him and he didn’t have any friends.

I don’t know how to write grants or raise a lot of money but I do know how to write. Sometimes the only thing I think I can do is tell their story, give them a voice. I don’t know who to tell; I don’t know who will listen; I want to try and give them hope.

I think that if we can find a place where these children can come and learn social skills, character development, and express themselves through the arts we can give them hope for the future.

I am afraid that some of my neighbors will be very upset if they read this because they do not want to admit that these kids and families are in their affluent communities and schools.

These are our children. These children are like children everywhere. It is just that in our affluent community some want to pretend that these children don't exist.

I invite you to add to this and start a conversation.

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