This morning, I wake up, make coffee, hop aboard the FB train and look. I look because people are sharing their news, showing pictures, posting articles and opinions. I enjoy it for the most part and also think about how open and honest people can be. Essentially inviting a wealth of people to view some part of themselves that they feel ok about sharing. I’ve been doing that for the past 10 years myself. I’ve shared my stories about my life, my work, my vacations, my opinions and opportunities.
It’s a lot to put out there, if someone were to sit down and organize my thoughts I wonder what it would say? Probably some vague posts, but also some thoughtful (I hope).
Today I share something I’ve been holding on to. Today is my last day at the detention center. I’ve been working there for a full 9 years, and I definitely have mixed emotions about leaving. I think it’s a good decision for me, because I want to do something different, and I also feel the need to re-calibrate myself personally and professionally. Maybe people will find that funny, but I’ve spent 10 years being associated with the detention center, and I’ve put my all into every single day of working there. I think I’ve had a lot of opportunities that have led me to some other pretty fantastic experiences. However, the experience of working there is taxing on most who spend a significant amount of time there.
I don’t want to downplay the stressful environment, because it truly is one of the most challenging places to teach. It’s not just because of the kids, but also the type of place, the potential for aggression and the constant barrage of verbiage that comes out of mouths. There are always noises. Constant motion, and an underlying current of anxiety. One of the most anxious parts of my day occurs every 50 minutes. When a class ends, I have to round up all the art supplies by myself, count them all, and put them away. Everyday I count markers, pencils, color pencils, erasers, fine point markers, paint brushes, scissors, rulers, stencils, and many other kinds of supplies. I clearly don’t think my students should be limited in the act of art making. True, I could limit their choices more, and leave out one pencil for each students, and give them one marker at a time to use. But I have always felt that it’s ineffective and takes way too much time from the short class period we already have.
The decision to leave didn’t come easy to me. And some might say I waited too long, or some might say too soon. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve been a part of something that taught me a lot about myself. Everyday was like staring into a big mirror and seeing a reflection of things I didn’t like inside myself, that were too painful for me to deal with on my own. Working there was the biggest education for me, even though I was the teacher. I am not sure if some of the students recognized that or not. Every chance I got, I told them,” You are my teacher too.” I would often see so many students rise above the daily challenges, the trauma they have incurred, the barriers they had to overcome, the recognition of their faults just by the virtue of being placed in a detention home. How many people do you know are forced to take responsibility for their actions on a daily basis? How many people do you know deliberately avoid and overlook their own shortcomings in the world and keep on moving? I’m sure we can count ourselves sometimes.
The fact is, yes, my students are there by court order, many of them have done unspeakable things, and many have done things only a teenager could be in trouble for. Many of them come from circumstances that we would never understand or be able to recognize. Some go to great lengths to cover up their circumstances and are constantly trying to show that “everything is ok”, or they’re “in control”. We know that’s not the case.
So the daily challenge becomes- what can you do now? All students are not the same, each of them require a lot of different kinds of services, interactions, accommodations and treatment. All of them carry with them individual habits, predispositions, interests, histories that we may uncover or not. Many students have realized the opportunity that education could change their course and station in their current life. In school, they get our undivided attention, working with teachers who care and will not let them give up, or allow them to see alternatives to the path they have previously chosen. Many struggle with letting that control go, and hold up that heavy wall of protection for themselves. It can be extremely hard to keep up, by the way. However, there are holes in that wall. Some of which start to crumble, but some of which they begin to tear down themselves. They become vulnerable and open. Sometimes, they flail around because they may have never had such opportunities or people who care about them and want to support them. Or, maybe they’ve realized they have already wasted some opportunities like this.
And maybe that is one of the difficult things for me. It has take a lot of patience to get to the student, creating a lot of access points to interest the student in doing something, and also being ready when the moment happens. But, when it does, it is rewarding. For everyone.
When I started teaching, I really had no direction, or goal of teaching in a particular kind of school, in a particular kind of setting. I actually started out as a Social Studies teacher in a tough school in Albuquerque. I too, flailed around to see where my feet would land, and it landed at the detention center. I had the opportunity to work with some amazing people on the education side and detention side. I’ve learned about hard work and dedication by being in their presence and observing how my co-workers interacted with the students. I learned that you have to collaborate, you have to ask for help, you too— have to be vulnerable and willing to fail, and willing to get back up, go to work, and try again. Most importantly, you need to be you. Authentic, real, and compassionate. Towards yourself and others.
I never knew all of what my students were attempting to overcome, or battle with, but it never really mattered to me in some ways. They needed me to guide them, be supportive of them when they needed it, and offer them an environment where they could flourish in the midst of chaos. If they were willing, they came along on that journey with me.
There is a popular saying that people use, often under difficult circumstances, but it all rings true to me. It encompasses non-judgment, compassion, and empathy: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”