We Are Kindling Schist because in U.S. education, "it was always burning." Read. Comment. Submit.

GETTING OUT By Elizabeth Stapleton

At the alternative high school in a midwestern city where I’d been working for five years, I had developed a unit on social activism through letter writing, introducing my students to various issues in the U.S. and around the world in which I’d hoped they’d take an interest and feel moved to speak out. Each year I was gratified when at least a handful of the students wrote impassioned, articulate pleas on behalf of others, letters to the editor or formal appeals to heads of state, regardless of their own problematic circumstances or degree of skill in writing.

In conjunction with this unit, one day Cheryl, our Americorps volunteer, presented an activity on homelessness. The kids were probably no more off the mark than I was in their preconceptions: they understand about mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse, but most of us were not prepared for the fact that widowhood and leaving the armed forces are high risk factors, or that the average homeless person in our city was a 14-year-old boy. Then Andre, a sweet but ornery boy of sixteen with a propensity for interesting philosophical arguments as to why my assignments were worthless, took umbrage at something another student said and railed at him that he didn’t know what he was talking about before storming out and slamming the door.

A year earlier, Andre had joined a group of students and one of our counselors in Aspen, Colorado for leadership and conflict-resolution training and various outdoor adventures in the mountains. He’d come back saying, “That’s where I want to live. In a little house up in those pine trees. Up where it’s quiet.” He was, it turns out, struggling with homelessness himself, one occasional refuge being a drug house where an addicted parent spent lots of time. He was often absent, and his counselor told me Andre had recently returned after being gone several days saying, “There’s money to be made; I can’t be wasting all my time at school.” He returned the day after he’d left my room so abruptly, but his attendance began to dwindle, and the following fall he did not re-enroll. I feared the worst until a friend of his mentioned he had transferred to another alternative school, which reassured me somewhat but left me hoping, hoping but never knowing, Would he graduate? Would he find a home? At the time I had recently separated from my husband and was fretting over our inability to keep up payments on a 5-bedroom house in a lovely mid-town neighborhood. The irony of my own meager bravery at losing such luxury was not lost on me.

I found myself thinking of Andre often, and I didn’t know what we could do about it all. I didn’t know how to tell kids it would all be okay, that they could make their dreams come true, be anything they wanted to be: these conclusions seemed not only uncertain, but unlikely, and I began to suspect we were disingenuous in our encouragements. This high school education was not going to be the answer to their needs or prayers, no sure ticket out, especially with our minimal expectations for what they had to do to graduate. Children who will not read a book or complete homework will not become doctors or lawyers unless they change, and I was less and less sure I could help them to do that.

Besides, our kids seemed to have a hard time even staying physically safe, putting themselves in harm’s way so often they seemed to have a death wish, romanticizing their beliefs that they weren’t going to survive their teenage years. Once, after a one-upmanship discussion of who’d lost more friends or family to violence, I became so exasperated that I asked my class, “How many people do you think I’ve lost that way? None! Zero! Do you think your friends are worth any less than mine are?” They assured me they were powerless to affect such changes in their neighborhoods: it was just the way things were. I grasped for words but could not see how to lead them towards my own conclusion, that their acceptance assured them of losing more of the people they loved.

I began to distance myself from the frustration by reading and pondering and trying to grasp how the culture around me had come to such self-destruction. The web of influences and motivations is not simple, but there are some basic principles involved, I found. Most of us are familiar with concepts of fight or flight. With undeniably animal bases for our emotional responses, we’ve retained this sense of defensive choices in reaction to threats. Our civilizations teach us to subsume these choices to the social contract: caught in the press of a holiday crowd at Disney World, for example, we might seek respite with a drink and an unclaimed table, or resort to jokes about our place among the masses, rather than run shrieking from the place or punch the next stranger who brushes against us. The stress can make our hearts pound more rapidly and increase our cortisol and adrenaline secretion, but we rarely die or throw ourselves into worse jeopardy with our responses—that is, unless we are like many of my students at the time, without the internal safeguards, without the mainstream social finesse.

A little further along the scale of socially approved responses, en masse we declare wars and train soldiers, usually young men, to fight them, to know when to attack and when to retreat or, more commonly, to obey orders from superiors to do either. Since 9/11 we have resumed pushing young men towards becoming socially approved Warriors, but with cautions that acknowledge last time: many veterans of the Vietnam War are still being treated for their emotional scars, and there is a growing realization that even those from older wars bear invisible traumas that have shadowed their lives for decades. So our social needs to protect territory and to seek peace compete continuously. We promote in our soldiers honor, camaraderie, and determination to win at the same time we attempt to protect and heal individuals from what they’ve suffered, what they’ve done, and, as we’ve finally begun to appreciate its importance, what they’ve witnessed.

Without the larger social approval, support systems, or promise of compensation awarded our nation’s armed forces, children and young men and women who spend time on urban streets are also prone to this post traumatic stress disorder. They’re frequently called to defend themselves or hide from aggression or retaliation, to either directly confront or avoid the neighborhood enemies around them. They maintain their own social order, sometimes resisting social attachments and other times bowing to established rules and codes of honor practiced in their communities, most often involving mistrust of outsiders such as police. But this sort of order seems to insist on violence without articulating even a hope of transcending it, the inchoate instincts for revenge solidified without any ameliorating awareness of history or psychology.

The similarities of these young people’s PTSD to that of combat veterans means the same psychological mechanisms and self-protective responses apply. Damage is cumulative: the more trauma experienced, in both degree and quantity, the more severe the reactions are likely to be. Flashbacks to the precipitating trauma are the reaction most publicized, but these may be less common and less damaging than other symptoms. Undue and unwarranted physical reactions to perceived threats, whether from sudden noises or movements or benign touches, manifest themselves in the mirror-image violence of jerks, shouts, and unpremeditated physical attacks, natural reactivity turned to pathology. Many sufferers dissociate, becoming emotionally numb or inappropriately intellectual even in safe, loving situations; intimate relationships pay a heavy toll, or may be lost altogether. Many students I encountered at my school never smiled, would not look anyone in the eyes, and spoke gruffly and threateningly, yet with time would reveal a tender side—a love of puppies or small children, an amazement at the stars or curiosity about a foreign land, perhaps—that they did not know how to share regularly with other human beings or translate into healthy pursuits. Much of this inability came from the modeling of parents and peers, of course, but that itself was a sort of cultural response to hardships and violence in their communities.

Protective factors, too, are cumulative. There’s no magic medicine to ensure a vet or a teen will go on to live a normal, happy life. Insurance comes from a random complexity of sources, from the luck of genetics and family to the supports that the rest of us can consciously provide. Intelligence—as quantified by I.Q.—correlates positively with healthy recovery, as does a temperament that measures ordinary stresses lightly. Relationships with family and friends may protect teenagers from being disabled by their reactions to trauma, but for those with emotionally unhealthy parents or peers, maintaining distance may actually be protective until a time when a young person is able to deliberately choose wholesome company. Prosocial cognition, a tendency to have faith in the social contract and people’s generally benign intentions, may appear dangerously naive as a modus operandi in some milieux, but actually there’s evidence that those young people who retain this attitude despite harrowing circumstances are more likely to go on to have happy, healthy lives. Externally imposed social supports such as mentors may help but sometimes seem to hurt: I would speculate that a young person who’s learned not to rely on those around him might be prone to test any friendship offered, and then react even more self-destructively if it turns out to be based only on social artifice. Teachers are notably less effective in supporting teens than parents and peers, yet where teachers offer the only available positive influence, this may be some protection. Opportunities to exercise and reinforce their own internal locus of control, that sense of personal ability to effect change in their own lives and in the world, buffer teens’ reactions to violence they cannot control, or at least offer them a more truthful balance between what is possible and what isn’t. If your best friend or your mother has been assaulted or killed, grief and helplessness might threaten to engulf you, but the chance to engage in a simple act such as building a table or helping a disabled person prepare a meal might restore small but important beliefs in your own power.

As these examples demonstrate, the nuances of human development and healing resist easy study or solutions. When young people’s personal experiences and dysfunctional cultures clash so decidedly with what the more fortunate among us see as norms of living, it can be impossible for us to persuade them that they need to change their lives. If they suddenly transform themselves, they put themselves at physical risk of being treated as traitors by their “homies”; they also risk the internal conflict of seeing themselves as having betrayed their cultural, family, and neighborhood roots. For this reason, one of the most important source of inspiration and comfort for conflicted teens is the example of role models who have been through what they have, young men and women who have seen or been part of violence yet gone on to choose other ways of living. Those of us who can’t offer ourselves as such examples might still impart kindness and information and problem-solving skills, and so at least an inkling of a wider, richer, and kinder world. But having to conform such offerings to the requirements of public funding and job descriptions means our influence is limited.

Sometimes it’s a wonder anyone gets out unscathed, but they do. Although no social mechanism or good intention by itself saves anyone, there is good in the world, and if we’re willing to continually and insistently expose at-risk youth to that good in all its richness, without trivializing or denying the pulls on them from the violence in their lives, we may at least open them to the freedom and the power to resist it.

But some we lose forever, as we did that year at my little school. Aaron Danbrook was shot dead in the course of an ongoing gang dispute that our students seemed, in retrospect, to know a lot about. I didn’t know him, although I knew his way of moving in the halls, a sort of lope that came with an easy, shy smile, his silhouette at the end of the hall as he entered other classrooms. I knew his friends, most of the Latino students, who frequently mentioned him in conversation with each other. I knew from the other teachers his reputation as a student: he was a kid with potential—that is, one who’d acted on his potential more than most students we had, a kid worth challenging, worth offering college-prep academics and enriching field trips (he would not cause problems in public), able to focus energy, effort and time on assignments, like the scale model White House he carefully constructed from architectural model materials. When he was gone, his family presented the model to the school to be placed in the library, where it gathers dust but still reminds those of us who remember what happened of the future we’ve all lost in him.

I knew nothing of the gang activity he was involved in, but Brother Robert did. Brother R., a Christian Brother who came to us in my fourth year, had soon become one of my allies in calling for more rigorous academics and standards of courtesy. Although he’d grown up in the United States and English was his first language, his parents were from Middle and South America, so he’d mastered Spanish and soon become the primary mediator and translator for our Latino families, Mexican and Honduran and others, whose numbers at our school were rising at the time. Besides teaching a full course load, he was frequently busy translating for harried, worried parents and advocating for bone-headed but good-hearted girls and boys who flirted with danger and immersed themselves in drama with a frightening regularity. Unlike our black students, whose rivalries largely hinged on neighborhood or family disputes, the Latino youth were more likely to be caught up in formalized gang activity with the West Side Locos and the Southside boys, to be “jumped” in, to not only holler numbers or throw up the finger combinations that signaled their alliances but also to be tatted with them or wear their colors. As with others of our students, sometimes it was the affable ones who were most likely to be lured into this lifestyle.

Brother R. knew Aaron, and he grieved with Aaron’s young friends and with his family in the days following his shooting. He helped us pray when we all lit candles in his memory in our gym, our usually noisy students reverently gripping the paper holders and eyeing the dripping wax. He called the Latino students together frequently in the weeks following Aaron’s death, joining the call for all the young people there to put aside hatreds and resentments and instincts for revenge and to decide instead for Life. As befitted his calling, he lent us all a strength and acceptance I’ve found comforting, yet he’s written me, “I will never get over losing Aaron Danbrook. I feel that he started to see a way out through education, but was too embroiled in gang activity, needed more time to break free. I guess that heartbreak was part of life at [our school], but I am a stronger person for it!” Myself, I can’t say that I am stronger for such tragedies, but wiser, yes.


[This is an excerpt from a longer work. Names and some identifying information in this story have been changed.]


Comments are closed.