What Do You See?
Yesterday, I received the best compliment from a student. She comes to my classroom on her lunch period, which happens to be a preparation period for me, and we work, with pressing urgency, on the things we need to do. Intermittingly, we chat. Well, mostly she talks, and I lend the necessary ear to whatever happens to be bothering her at the time. She’s been dealing with some family issues, much more complicated and heartbreaking than anything I have ever experienced myself. But the maturity, complexity of understanding, and heart with which she expresses herself, defers her feelings for the good of those who really don’t deserve it, and sees the bigger picture at the age of fourteen amazes me. When the bell rang, she gathered her things, and I, still typing on the computer, praying mentally for her strength and courage, tried to refocus on the paperwork I needed to finish before fifth period. Before she entered the throng of loud, offensive, and obscene passing through the halls, she turned and said, “Thank you for noticing who I really am.” It took everything in me not to burst into tears and run to give her a reassuring I-know-you’ll-be-okay hug, but I politely (and career appropriately) smiled and nodded saying, “You’re welcome.”
Whenever I’m feeling stretched to the limit and stressed beyond all reason, God sends little angelic messages my way to remind me of His ultimate plan for me. This work is divinely inspired, and there’s an expectation for me beyond my own imaginings. And I embrace that. But as I lay in bed and contemplate the happenings of yesterday, it occurs to me with vital poignancy that way too many of our kids don’t have anyone in their lives who see them for whom they really are. All of the bad politics, policies, and policing in our communities seem to indicate a profound misunderstanding and, more harshly, discounting of our youth.
We notice, decry, and even poke fun of the behaviors (e.g., pants sagging, gang banging, promiscuity, substance abuse, and violence), but we rarely consider the people. We allow the media to paint our kids as nothing more than baby mamas, absentee fathers, thugs, whores, and various miscreants, but the real problem is that we have started to adopt these perceptions ourselves. We no longer see the vulnerabilities of a child abused. We ignore the primal survival instincts of the young man surrounded by death and mayhem on a daily basis. We overlook the fear of a young lady sent day after day into a home with family struggling with their own addictions. We discount the impact of a transient lifestyle on the stability of a burgeoning young mind. In short, we play into the self-hate and de-escalation of pride. That same pride propels our most successful youth to the highest heights. We demonize and criminalize those who suffer from the effects of a community rife with low-expectations, underperformance, and inaction. We sit in our ivory towers and glass houses content with our own levels of success, praising those we gave birth to, but never once reaching down or out to those most in need of a kind word, educational opportunity, spiritual reminder, or love.
I used to love the starfish on the beach analogy to teaching (“If I can save just one…”) But as I mature, I realize that the work we do is far too important to strive for saving just one, largely because not enough of us in the community are trying to save one. I am reminded of God’s ultimate sacrifice, sending his Son that “we all might have life more abundantly.” I am so grateful that saving one was not sufficient. I am so glad that I have a chance.
Ladies and gentlemen, regardless of your occupations, we have a responsibility to our youth that stretches outside of our homes and beyond our annual charitable contribution. No, it isn’t our faults what parents do or refuse to do to empower their children, but we are at fault when we ignore our role in perpetuating a profound disregard for those most in need. Let us take the time to truly see these children, taking notice of their lives and understandings. Let us try to cultivate a spirit of success and positivity. Let us stand up for what’s right. Let us refuse to succumb to the debasing portrayals and inferior expectations that keep our community spiraling into an abyss of nothingness. This is our charge. This is our obligation.