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Posts Tagged ‘Hope’

A student told me today that I was almost like an angel or a saint—“One of those people who never do anything wrong.” She listed the traditional “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” kinds of activities. At the time, I explained that I had made choices based on a long-term perception of how I wanted my life to be and the conversations I didn’t want to have with my spouse. I then launched into a discussion of how our choices affect our lives, specifically in the areas of sex and drugs.

I realized, however, as I thought about it, that I didn’t make good decisions because I was so wise as a teenager, but because I wasn’t around all the stuff these kids are. I didn’t know anyone who was divorced when I was in junior high or anyone that wasn’t living with both biological parents (unless one of them had died.) I couldn’t have found drugs if I wanted them (except on a family trip to New York when I was offered crack), and I knew very few people who drank in high school—and those only by reputation, never around me. It’s an entirely different world from the place my students live.

To allow others who may have been similarly sheltered to understand what my students deal with, I wanted to type out a portion of their stories in their own words. The writing is in response to an autobiography project that I assigned. They started with a list of five events that had impacted their lives. Then, they could either pick one to tell in detail or all five in summary. Those were the only instructions I gave them. I got a few “When I got my tongue pierced” or “The day I met my best friend” essays, but more were much more tragic. I think for me the greatest tragedy was the realization that for these kids, there was nothing abnormal or weird about sharing these stories—it is their “normal.” I asked them for permission to share their stories with you. So here they are, in their voice, the stories of their lives :

1. When I was young, my mom lost custody of me and my brother. My grandma [name] got custody. They are still fighting for us today. My brother has seizures, so he’s kind of mental. I have two sisters and three brothers. My mom and dad were never married.
Now, my mom is engaged and my dad is now married. My dad has been married for five years almost. My family is kind of hectic. My grandma is married and has been married for six years. I moved here from [location]. I’m hoping that I’ll move down there next month after the ninth. I haven’t lived with my mom for seven years. I moved here in the third grade when I was nine. . . .

2. The first thing I remember is police busting through the door arresting my dad for drug trafficking. I was small. I’m not sure how I remember this, but Tupac’s “Hail Mary” was playing and the stove was on. My mom and I were crying.
Another memory from my childhood is me, about three now, sitting in a tub. My mother was washing my feet. I cried because the water was too hot. I got burned.
I remember when I was thirteen, when my dad was arrested again—on Christmas. My mom went to rehab for alcohol abuse. My brother and I cried together.
I remember being forced to share a house with my grandparents, staying outside all day, playing football and basketball with my brother.
I remember my first fist fight. I won. But, I felt so bad.
I remember the first time I thought I was cool and try a cigarette. I coughed my lungs out. I almost died. Ha-ha. . . .
I remember a lot of things. Negative or not, the memories have made and shaped who I am today.

3. Birth. My parents got divorced. My dad got remarried. My mom got remarried. I ended up with two sisters and three brothers on my mom’s side. My step mom told me she was pregnant on my birthday. Worst birthday ever because I wanted to be Daddy’s little girl. Sixth grade, my little sister was born. I was scared. My mom took my dad to court for custody of me. We lost. My dad wouldn’t talk to me for a few weeks after that. Seventh grade, I got in my first fight. I was afraid my dad was going to kill me, but he just said as long as I didn’t lose, then I wouldn’t be in trouble. And now, here I am.

4. When I was a little kid, my dad was not a good one. He is/was a drug addict. My mom had me at a young age and wasn’t married to my father. My mom had me in April, and they got married in September. She married him because she thought he would change. But, he didn’t change. He would steal my mom’s car and leave. When he left, he would go get high on cocaine or marijuana and stay out until it wore off. When he would come home, he would make up lies about where he was at. My mom dealt with it for a long time. Then, I found out that my mom was pregnant with my sister. She had my sister and still put up with his crap. In August [year], they finally got divorced. I was sad about it, but then I got over it. He couldn’t keep a job and was in jail a couple of times. In March [year], I got a call that my dad wanted to see me. I went home and saw him. He was with my cousin. My cousin and my mom were talking, and my dad took me in my room and said he wanted to talk to me. We sat on my bed and he started to cry. He had been doing drugs and told me that he didn’t want to live anymore. I screamed and started crying. My cousin and my mom ran in the room and asked what happened. Then, they left, and I didn’t see my dad for a while. In October [year], my dad went to jail for a month and a half. It was sad, but then again, oh well. He is now sort of stable and has a job. But, if any of that wouldn’t have happened, my mom probably wouldn’t be the woman she is now and wouldn’t have raised me like she did. I probably wouldn’t be as strong as I am now and independent.

5. I grew up in a house with four rooms two bathrooms. I lived with my mom, dad, and two sisters. This was until I was six. My mom decided to move out and get a divorce. We went to my aunt’s house for a couple of days, then moved out to [location.] I lived there from [time]. I went to first and second grade in [location]. We had moved in with my uncle. Things got bad between me and his daughter, so we went back to my aunt’s. This time, we lived in the back house, which the last time was occupied. We lived there for like two years. In [year], my mom wanted to move again, so we did. We had to move schools again and make new friends. Well, I liked it because it wasn’t that hard. . . .

6. I don’t really remember when I was born, so I’ll skip to when I was five. When I was five, my mom, my mom’s ex, and I used to live in [location.] My dad would always think my mom would cheat on him. He was a truck driver, coming home only some weekends, so he did not know. I know my mom didn’t cheat on him because I’m here from like __to two o’clock. So then my mom and dad divorced. We got kicked out of our house and forced to move here. We lived with our uncle until his wife didn’t want us to live at their house. So we moved into my grandfather’s house. I loved it there because he didn’t care what we did at all. My life has been very well after all of this. My mom has a very good job and she is very well. . . .

7. [Date] is one day I will never forget. One interesting day, I should say. That day I won’t forget because I lost my dad that day. I was at my friend [name]’s house, and early in the morning, my dad got up and decided that he didn’t want to be around anymore. He got up, and he got dressed. He and my mom got into a huge fight. They wouldn’t stop. They argued about everything, until my dad got so far, he grabbed a knife and started going towards my older brother’s room, and my mom had to call the cops. The cops heard the whole thing over the phone and were sent to our house right away. My dad was escorted out and told it would be best if he were to stay gone for a few days. It ended up being more than a few days. When I came home, he was gone. I saw my dad again that July when there was a medical emergency including me where I had to go to the hospital because my little brother shattered a glass window in my face at about three inches away from my face. I was put into the emergency room for eight hours. They took X-rays of my face and hands and then sent me home.
The problems just spiraled out of control from there. My brother was sent to a mental institution, shortly after the incident with my face, and we went in for family counseling. One year later, my little brother was released and sent back home. Before he was released in [time], I had stopped seeing my dad in [time]. I haven’t seen him in a year, nor has he tried to contact me in over a year. I really don’t understand why it seems like my dad didn’t care, and if he did, he had an odd way of showing it. I kind of miss my dad, but I don’t really miss the things he said and he did. On [date], my parents will be getting a divorce, and then me and my two siblings will be put in a custody battle. This will probably be a long, hard process, but it will have to be done. I hope to have all the fighting over with soon, but with all this, something good is sure to come.

8. A few months after living a life of abuse and lies, I broke. I couldn’t handle the stress, and I couldn’t bear living with my mistakes. I found a bottle of pills and took nearly twenty. I was numb. I stumbled into my room. Becoming more and more dizzy, I began to pass out. My sister walked into the room, picked up the pill bottle, and screamed. She quickly told my mom what had happened. She was screaming, crying, and starting the car. I was rushed to the hospital. My family was shocked. I was forced to stay awake until a room had opened. I could hear my mom filling in the rest of the family. I could only make out a few words… “She found Grandma’s pills…she was raped.” I closed my eyes as I was put on a stretcher. My inner thoughts were screaming, “Take me, take me, take me already.” The nurse interrupted them as she impatiently shoved a large white bottle in my right hand and a straw in my left. “Drink quickly, sweetheart.” I took a sip. Charcoal. I should have known. I drank hastily, growing more and more terrified. I heard my step sister inform my mother what had to come next. 72 hours in a padded room. I trembled. “Why hadn’t I just used a quicker method?” My inner voice boomed in my head. By now it was 11:00 pm. I had arrived at around 3:00 pm. I was exhausted. Hauled onto a stretcher, the paramedic socialized and tried to give me advice. I fell asleep, and awoke in a new hospital. A mental hospital. I stayed there for almost a week. I will never forget this experience. And I hope nobody will make the mistakes I have.

These are just a sampling, but I think they paint a clear picture. May we love well and never be fooled by the calm exterior. Additionally, may we realize that not everyone’s dealt the same hand in life, but as so many of my students did, understand that regardless of the hardships, there is still hope.

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This past week, I had two days of consecutive conversations with teenagers who were trying to navigate the baggage they had inherited from getting involved sexually at too young an age. It is one of my biggest frustrations that no one (or maybe not enough people) seems to be talking to these kids honestly about the choices they’re making, so that by the time they get to me, it is often too late.

The first instance was a young lady who came in to see me because she has sought my advice before. Just that Friday, she had come by at the football game and discussed a relationship with a guy. Knowing the guy she was “talking to,” I had warned her as explicitly as I could without telling his business. She assured me that they weren’t dating, but were “friends with benefits.” I explained to her that was worse. “Why?” she asked me, “What’s wrong with that?” I explained to her that being “friends with benefits” meant that she was willing to give herself away without any type of commitment on his part. She was completely devaluing herself. She agreed I was right, and shortly after, went away…

Tuesday, she came in to tell me “things had happened,” and now everyone knew about it and was calling her names, and she might have a disease–an incurable one. “I should have listened to you.” she said, “But, he promised me he was a virgin…” Of course he did. The whole school had heard rumors of everyone this guy’s been with. But, she believed him. And it may have affected the rest of her life.

We discussed how she couldn’t change the past, but she could learn from this. I explained that the most valuable lesson she could learn is to value herself–that her value doesn’t come from a beauty pageant or from an older guy paying attention to her–it is simply because of who she is. I gave her a hug, and she left.

The next day, the second girl came in. She came to talk to me because I had seen the scars on her arm from cutting. She explained that she was doing it because it made her ex-boyfriend pay attention to her. I asked her if she really wanted a relationship with someone who was only in it because he felt sorry for her. She said, “I don’t care why he’s with me, just so long as he is…” The back story on this girl is that she had given this guy her virginity because he kept bugging her. She finally said, “If I let you, will you shut up?” My heart broke when she’d told me that. I explained to her that the reason she felt so attached to this guy is that she had given him her virginity–that that act creates a powerful bond between people, and that’s why it is not to be given thoughtlessly. I explained to her that she needed her heart to be healed and that bond broken.

Two lives devastated by choices. I realize talking about sex is an awkward conversation to have. I also realize that everyone has to make the decision of when and if they are going to have sex, and that THEY have to make that decision. My challenge though–to parents, to teachers, and to adults who have conversations with young people is this: No one says, “I wish I’d been a bigger slut in high school.” But plenty of people say, “I wish I’d waited longer.” Please be honest with kids. Counsel them on the consequences of the choices they make. When appropriate, share your own experiences–even if they include regrets. It’s far easier to be awkward for a little bit than to pick up the pieces after the fact.

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Today was one of those days I live for as a teacher: the kind of day when the lesson plan gets thrown out the window (modified) and you just deal with life lessons.

We have been doing speeches recently. Public Speaking is an eighth grade state standard, and I had given my students the encouragement to pick a topic they were passionate about–either positively or negatively, explaining that if you loved something or it made you angry, you were more able to speak for three minutes, hold the audience’s attention, and otherwise make it easy on yourself. I knew I had a winner when one of my Honors students picked the topic of depression.

By way of background knowledge, this is a beautiful, popular young woman. What a number of her classmates didn’t know (which I knew through a variety of journals and her personal narrative paper), was that this girl had struggled with severe depression–to the point of having to be in an institution this year. When she asked if she should do the topic, I told her I thought it was an incredible opportunity to give meaning to her pain–to allow her experience to impact others lives. She asked if I wanted her to share her story. I responded that if she was willing, I felt it would help many students in her class that see her as this picture perfect image. Thankfully, she was willing.

Yesterday, a number of her classmates were out, so, while I could have had her give her speech then, I (with the remaining class members’ votes) decided to have her wait until today so everyone could hear.

Her 3-5 minute speech initially took about 7 minutes, with her stumbling around the symptoms and causes of depression. Finally, she got to her story. When she switched into that mode, she gained confidence and was extremely transparent about the reasons she had struggled with depression and her experience in the facility. Her classmates hung on her words. She shared the struggles she had undergone resulting in an attempt to take her own life. She praised her classmates who had been there for her to encourage her. She explained how she had learned to share her feelings with others and allow them to help her through her situation. It was a truly unforgettable experience.

I am thankful today was a catch-up day, because we only ended up having about 15 minutes for Shakespeare, Vocabulary, and continued work on research papers. But, as one student shared with her, “I feel like I used to know who you were–we had a few conversations, but didn’t really talk much. But, now, I think I have a lot more respect for you. I’ve seen what you’ve gone through, and what you’ve overcome. Thanks for sharing with us.” Those moments–the times when human beings truly are genuine with each other–are precious indeed. And in the midst of that, we were able to open up a taboo subject and show students that everyone has struggles, and we can overcome them, if we will stick together and encourage one another.

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I asked a journal question this week which ended up being extremely eye-opening to me. The question was “If you could have one of your parents be someone from any time in history, who would you want as a parent and explain why.” The response of one student blew me away. Here’s what she said:

“I would want my mother to be is you, Miss Brailey. You push people to get good grades. Also a kind heart on how people feel. You care about how us students are doing.”

I know this girl’s history. (She’s the sister of the student I mentioned in “When did my life become Jerry Springer?”) Her mom’s in a gang and treats her horribly. Another teacher had mentioned an incident to me where her mom had come to get her from a practice that ran late and cussed her out in front of her coach and entire team. I can’t imagine this girl’s home life, and, though her sister (whom I never had in class) got pregnant at 16, both she and her brother are amazing kids.

I think of the things she wanted from a parent: Someone to push me, someone to be kind and care, and someone to make sure I’m doing okay. Not too difficult of standards to meet, but it’s amazing how few of our kids have that. Thankfully, for the many that don’t there is often a teacher there–in loco parentus–to care about them and push them to succeed.

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We’ve been discussing World View recently in an effort to give some background on author beliefs. I begin the discussion with the explanation that everyone in the world has to answer Three essential questions: Where did I come from? (Meaning how did the world begin), Why am I here?, and Where am I going when I die? I then lay out all the major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Agnosticism, and Atheism) and explain how they answer these questions.

Next, we read Holy Sonnet XIV by John Donne and The Noiseless Patient Spider by Walt Whitman. We examine each for the author’s beliefs. John Donne’s work is ordered and rhymed (design) and demonstrates his deep longing for a relationship with God. Whitman, on the other hand, writes in a free verse style (no rhyme or rhythm), and demonstrates his lack of answers to the essential questions. In his own words, he is “Seeking the sphere’s to connect.”

Usually, it’s one of my favorite lessons, as it provokes a lot of questions about a number of different things. This year, though, my mom came to visit me in the middle of the week. She had been watching a number of specials on this generation, and when I said she was welcome to come to school to meet my kids, she said not only would she like to, but that she’d like to speak as well. Shocked, I agreed.

Even my rowdiest kids were silent and attentive as she shared five stories. She began with an explanation that we are in a battle daily between good and evil, and that their age group is especially vulnerable, being at the age where moral decisions are made. She then shared the story of Joseph, explaining how his brothers had mistreated him and sold him into slavery. She explained how he was falsely accused, after gaining favor with his new master, and thrown in jail. Yet, at the end of the story, he had risen to prominence and saw his brothers again at a time when they need his help. He explains that he has made the choice to forgive them because he knew God had a purpose for all the harm that had come to him.

The next story she shared was about my grandpa, who was one of the oldest of twelve children. He had to drop out at eighth grade to help his family put food on the table. He went to work in the mines, but eventually began selling equipment, becoming so good that he was in charge of the sales distribution from Mexico to Canada through the Western United States. Ashamed of his eighth grade education, he consistently bettered himself through extensive reading.

The third story was about her. My mom has dyslexia, but determined to do well. While reading was difficult for her, she had auditory and observations skills which helped her learn and allowed her to graduate valedictorian of her class. She then went to college, where she graduated with highest honors and became a teacher.

Fourth, she shared about me, and how I had been born with a heart problem, and had to have three surgeries where I could have died. She explained that during my first surgery (when I was two), God assured her that He had a special call on my life. She looked my kids in the eye and said, “And you’re it.” She explained how God had given me a love for junior highers and that I cared about them. In a recent interview, students who had started out in gangs and drugs then turned their lives around were asked what made the difference in their lives. They each shared that they had someone who cared about them, and they had decided to quit making stupid choices. She explained that they had someone who cared about them (me), but the last part was up to them.

Finally, she shared a story from the war. A convoy had driven into an ambush, and after a bomb went off and they were being sniped, the sergeant was trying to get the wounded into the vehicles that were still operational, and he looked around to see a soldier standing, dazed. He said, “Soldier, get in the truck and drive!” The soldier responded, “But, sir, I’ve been shot.” To which the sergeant replied, “We’ve all been shot. Get in the truck and drive.” My mom explained that she’s learned that everyone’s been shot. We’ve all had hard times that we can use as an excuse or a launching point. Our job is to get in the truck and drive.

The talk had a huge impact on my kids, who all too often are tempted to use the circumstances of their lives as an excuse. Once again, it was another great opportunity to let them into my lives, and we were all richer for the experience. I think my favorite part of the day was a student telling me, “I really like your mom. I know that sounds like a ‘Your momma joke”, but I really mean it.” Definitely a memorable experience!

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Yesterday, I taught my now annual lesson on suicide. I added it to my standard curriculum about 2 years ago when one of our recent graduates committed suicide. This past Spring, another student killed himself.

I use the poem “The Thread” by Ellen Hopkins, which is a poem of intricate design and artistry. I initially picked it because of its powerful imagery and how well it illustrates the fact that “Free Verse” doesn’t mean “No design.” I read it on the back cover of the book Impulse and loved it. (For those who have not seen it, it introduces the story of three teenagers who try to commit suicide, fail, and end up in the same rehab facility.)

The basic structure of the lesson goes like this:

1. I begin with a journal topic: What was the most difficult time for you to keep on going? What was it that helped you make it through?

Students write for about 3-5 minutes and then we share responses.

2. We read “The Thread” aloud. The last line of the poem is “Put the gun to your chest.” When we get there, most students react: “WHAT?!?” I immediately ask them for their initial reactions to the poem. Usually, I get the typical answers: Depression, suicidal, psycho, emo, etc. Occasionally, like this year, they go a little deeper: loneliness, they feel like no one cares…

3. Then, I go through the poem and ask them a series of questions right out of the poem: “How many of you wish you could stop thinking sometimes? (every hand.) How many of you have been in a situation where you wish people would just leave you alone? (every hand) How many of you have wanted to forget something about the past? (every hand)…” There are about 10 questions I draw from the poem.

I then explain that I include this poem in the collection because we have recently had two former students commit suicide. I share that at Zach’s memorial service, his mom stated, “There are a number of problems with suicide. First, no one talks about it. Second, everyone that commits suicide feels like they’re alone–that no one understands what they’re going through.” I gesture around the room and say, “Obviously, that’s not true. Maybe they don’t understand your exact circumstances, but I guarantee you, they can relate.”

4. We then discuss the options kids have when dealing with problems: i.e., counselling, play a sport, write in a journal, go to a friend’s house, etc. I explain that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. All problems will pass–don’t make a decision you can’t rethink to handle a problem that will eventually resolve itself.

5. Finally, I discuss the design in the poem–the repetition of words which make a “thread” running through the poem, breaking off at the stanza beginning, “Act.” I also explain the cliché “Hanging on by a thread.”

All in all, it’s a very raw, real day. This year, I happened to have the sister of one of the boys who killed himself. She didn’t talk much, but I talked to her today to make sure she had been okay, explaining, “I don’t want what happened to your brother to happen to anyone else.” I also had a student write me a note which explained that “I don’t usually talk about emotions, but I trust you…” She proceeded to explain that her mother had robbed their family for drug money, cheated on her dad (who moved the family away from her), then promised to come back and never did. My student was 5 when all of this happened.

Giving kids coping tools is one way we can help them make it to graduation–not just academically, but alive.

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Today, a student dropped by during my plan. I had seen her yesterday with her friends, and she mentioned she wanted to see me, so I told her to stop by. I knew it was going to be a serious conversation–the guidance counsellor had already asked me if I knew anything that was going on with her.

She came in and after a bit of small talk, the big confession came out. She had cut this summer. No one knew about the first time, but the second, she got scared because the bleeding didn’t stop. When she finished telling me the story, she explained that her mom had freaked out, called the school, and tried shoving religion down her throat (She’s not really religious.) I explained to her that people turn to faith in times of crisis because it is only through faith that pain has purpose. If evolution is true, and everything is an accident, there is no reason to continue to fight against pain. It is only when we understand that there is a God and an afterlife that suffering has meaning.

I next explained that most people cut because they can’t handle emotional pain, so they try to bring their pain into an arena that they CAN handle–the physical. I asked her if that was the case with her. She nodded. (She was crying at the time.) She said, “My parents taught me to be tough and not show my emotions. When you stuff emotions for so long…it’s not good. They told me it’s weak to cry.”

I responded, “That’s bull. Sometimes it takes a lot of strength to cry because it’s allowing you to be vulnerable. Plus this (I indicated the tears running down her cheeks) That’s cleansing–that’s how you get those emotions out. Then, you can deal with them.”

I went on to ask about her home life. She explained that her parents yell at her over little things, and they used to hit her (but don’t now). She said she really struggles with anger. I explained that anger is either fear or hurt feelings–you have to figure out which one you’re dealing with so you can handle the real issue. I also explained that I was going to ask her to do something hard–forgive her family. I explained that forgiveness does not mean the person who hurt you was right–what they did was wrong. But, forgiving them takes control of you away from them. It allows the situation to quit hurting you.

I also explained to her that your blood is life–when you spill it for something, you’re giving power to that thing. Instead of making the situation better, you’re actually making it have more control over you (She’s Aztec, so she understands the meaning of blood sacrifices.) I explained that she needed to break those things over her life instead of giving more power to them.

Finally, I asked her if she had options of places to go when things at her home weren’t going well–she had to think, so I gave her that assignment–to develop a network of support for herself. Then, I gave her a hug and a Kleenex and the bell rang. Once again, I am reminded that though I can’t change the situation these kids deal with, I can give them the tools to survive–and I can show them they are not alone. Someone cares about them. And sometimes, that’s all it takes.

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