FRANK TALK ABOUT WHAT WE DO WITH OUR LIVES

Entry #5 (2013)

“Bring us into your world. What is something about your work (past or present) that outsiders typically don’t understand? It can be something required by the job, something that happens on the job, something you feel about the job—but whatever it is, do not exceed 800 words.

 

The Downwinders

In 1998, alternative schools in our district only accepted students with the severest behavior problems. The rest of the struggling students were ignored. A dearth of resources was the given reason, but my friend and I, both school teachers, would soon learn that the short view of these beleaguered children was far more pervasive than budget shortfalls.

The two of us created a pilot program to meet the need at our school. “Starting Block” was launched in a single classroom. We invited all students who had failed their freshman year. Our promise: an opportunity to catch up in their credits and eventually graduate with their class. Thirty students accepted our invitation.

Most of these students walked outside the mainstream. Many had been bullied. Most were shunned by the school community and some by their own families. The teachers were more than happy for us to take them out of their classrooms and, sadly, the students knew this. Self-effacing humor became the best defense against a collective poor self-image.  When, during a history lesson, the class learned about the “downwinders,” innocent people who suffered the consequences of nuclear testing in Nevada in the 1950s, student Doug joked, “That’s what we are, downwinders.”

Our downwinders were blasted by despair when their classmate Sam killed himself. Like the original downwinders who had been abandoned, we had been left to fend for ourselves. None of our administrators or school counselors came to help.  To make matters worse, teachers in the main building didn’t know about the death and for weeks continued to call out Sam’s name at daily attendance. Fortunately, our volunteers and a police officer assigned to the school, who had taken a liking to our students, stepped in to offer comfort.

Another incident magnified the negative perception of Starting Block students and the thoughtlessness of administrators. Following the mass shooting at Columbine High School, our principal brought a news reporter to the Starting Block Classroom. The message was clear to our students if not to the reporter: if an incident like this were to happen in our school, the perpetrator would come from this classroom.

Probably the most important thing we did in Starting Block was create a family atmosphere and the students soon thought of the classroom as their home. For some it was the first real taste of family life they had experienced. Consequently, when the outside world interfered with their lives, they often turned to us.

One morning, Cindy was sitting outside our classroom, waiting for us to unlock the door. She had been staying the night with her father, who lived across the Missouri River in Kansas. Her father got drunk and kicked her out at midnight. She didn’t have money or a phone, but she had her backpack with her school books. She had walked ten miles to the school and was waiting for us. Her mother was even more unreliable than her father.

Another morning, two of our boys brought in their friend, Amanda, who had been introduced to crack cocaine by a group of middle-aged dealers. They now wanted her to prostitute for them. These boys wanted us to rescue her.

A guest speaker told his story of contracting herpes when he was molested as a child.  Sadly, he had infected his wife and they were worried through pregnancies that their children would be affected. Together, three boys came to us after the talk saying that they all had sex with the same girl and were worried that they might be exposed. We took them to the free clinic to be tested. Fortunately, they were ok.

We couldn’t save everyone. Our former students continue to turn up in the local newspaper’s police report. But often we hear good news. Cindy brought her husband and two children to visit. After she graduated from high school, she worked as a motel maid where she met her husband, a contractor from Alabama. They fell in love, married and moved back to Alabama, away from all of her family problems. Amanda checked in a few years ago to say that she graduated and has a good job. Downwinder Doug sent an email August 20, 2012, ten years after he was in Starting Block, to tell us that he was enrolling in college that day and wanted to thank us for caring and for believing in him.

We created Starting Block to help students graduate. In proposals leading up to the program we talked of bringing them into the “mainstream.” We soon learned that these students were never mainstream because what they hoped to overcome wasn’t mainstream.  They were both wounded and strengthened by life. They were ignored and hoped to be noticed. Some graduated; some are still out there struggling. All of them are exceptional.

***

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  1. Teachers are like aunts and uncles: involved in the lives of youth who are not their own. Many disturbing studies have shown that society is quick to label people who are different as ‘troublemakers’ – and schools too often label such students as ‘special ed’ – shunting them off from mainstream classmates. Three cheers for this writer for seeing something worthy in the ‘outcasts’, however, and not giving up on them.

  2. I love this piece. While I wouldn’t put my teenage son exactly in this category yet, he’s not the khaki clad, polo shirt wearing kid so many of his peers are. I really don’t care about that (usually ….) but “walking your own course” is so painful in high school. Kudos to this author for being there for these kids.

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