We are six weeks away from the end of the school year. Six weeks away from summer. Six weeks away from unlimited sunshine and freedom. A week ago, I could hardly wait.
But then, my principal said something in a faculty meeting that really hit me. Hard.
She reminded us that graduation is approaching. And while graduation generally means the culmination of over a decade of hard work, it also generally means the culmination of childhood.
And some students are not ready for adulthood.
And some students have already had far too much adulthood. And they long for a return to their schooldays. And to innocence lost.
And believe me, there has been so much innocence lost.
I’ve taught a lot of students in my eighteen years as an educator. All teenagers, but ultimately, all still children. Children who deal with standard kid things. Like puppy love and shoe-envy and math allergies.
And, sadly, children who deal with standard adult things. Like work and money-troubles and death and pregnancy.
And tragically, children who deal with things no child OR adult should ever deal with. Things like rape and sex trafficking and addiction and suicide.
Teach for a year. Teach for a month. Teach for a day — And you will start to understand the obstacles and downright darkness surrounding some of our most vulnerable and precious of resources: our children. And the numbers are far greater than you can imagine.
I’ve taught students — children — who have been raped.
Children raped by strangers. Children raped by friends. Children raped at parties. Children raped at home. Children raped by fathers.
Children whose mothers sold their child’s virginity for a $100 meth fix.
Children coping with the trauma and shame of rape, plus the trauma and shame of family serving time for avenging that rape.
I’ve taught students — children — engaged to be married to high school sweethearts. And insanely happy about it. At sixteen. Seventeen. And I’ve taught students betrothed to men they didn’t know back in a home country they scarcely remembered. And insanely hopeless about it. At sixteen. Seventeen.
I’ve had students addicted to smart phones, to video games, to porn, to substances.
I’ve had students high in my classroom. Glassy-eyed and giggly. Or cracked out and twitchy, picking endlessly at arms, at scalps, at cheeks, at skin rupturing, crusting, rupturing again.
I’ve had students who are pregnant. I’ve had students who’ve had abortions.
I’ve had students who sleep around. Students who sleep on mattresses in kitchens, who sleep on blankets in closets, who sleep on sofas, on floorboards, in backseats
I’ve had students sleep straight through my classroom because they work all night in a factory to put food on the table for siblings.
I’ve had students sleep straight through my classroom because they stay up all night playing Fortnite to escape the reality of abuse.
I’ve had students sleep straight through my classroom because they stay up all night playing Fortnite because there is no one home to tell them to go to bed.
I’ve taught homeless students. Homeless students living with friends. Homeless students living in shelters. Homeless students living in cars.
I’ve taught hungry students. Hungry students with nothing at home to eat. Hungry students on free-and-reduced breakfast and lunch service. Hungry students who go home on Friday afternoons with backpacks full of ready-serve dinners and snacks. Full backpacks; far-from-enough.
And I’ve taught hungry students whose parents won’t fill out the paperwork. Hungry children who go home on Friday afternoons with nothing at home to sustain them at all. Not food. Not love.
I’ve taught children who’ve eaten friends’ leftover pizza and bread crusts, proffered snacks from my emergency stash, restaurant refuse, their parents’ prescription pills.
I’ve had students have meltdowns, have seizures, have medical emergencies. I’ve had students who’ve overdosed.
I’ve had students who made it. And I’ve had students who didn’t.
I’ve had students who’ve died in car accidents. I’ve had students who’ve died by suicide.
I’ve had students lose parents to cancer, to violence, to addictions.
I’ve had students whose moms are in prison for child endangerment. I’ve had students whose fathers are regularly subpoenaed for child support.
I’ve had students whose grandparents are raising them. Whose foster families are raising them. Whose siblings are raising them. Who are raising themselves.
I’ve taught students who dropped out. I’ve taught students who stayed in — but failed grades repeatedly. Not because they were incapable, but because they were in chaos.
Because school is their sanctuary. Because the classroom is their cocoon. Because at school there are adults who care. There are classmates. There is structure. There is connection.
And outside there is only darkness.
There is so much darkness in this world. So much heartache. My students’ hearts have broken a hundred-thousand times.
My own heart has broken a hundred-thousand times.
Yes, summer is coming. Graduation is coming.
But as you and your loved ones celebrate accomplishments and rites of passages and bright, shiny futures, please remember that the same cannot be said of everyone.
Because for some, the end of school means no more breakfast or lunch. No more smiles and assurances. No more illusions of normalcy.
No more safety net.
No, the end of school is not always a happy occasion.
Please research how you can best help young people in need in your community, your church, your neighborhood. Volunteer. Be connected. Stay connected.