Life Lessons, Taught the Hard Way

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When we drove up to the house, we heard shouting -- playful, hyper, enthusiastic expressions from kids we couldn’t yet see. The house looked like many others on the tree-lined street, but as we drove down its long curved driveway, it was clear from the noise that this house was full of children.

Laura Klein head shot Laura Klein

We parked in a small parking lot and walked up to the back steps, which were occupied by several teenagers. They directed us to the front desk, and we walked through a small dining room with multiple tables and a living room with many couches.

I gave them the name of our student, and signed in myself and another teacher.

Ellie is a troubled girl. She is smart, eager to please and very affectionate, but she has a dark side that emerges at least once a day.

She’ll scribble angrily in a notebook, or deface her desk. She’ll scream inappropriately at another student, or she’ll have a tearful breakdown in class.

We acknowledge that her history has created a need for attention in any capacity -- positive or negative -- and try to make her positive behavior feel more rewarding than her negative.

She sees the school counselor, and has permission to leave class to speak with her when she needs to. She has been in foster care for 13 years, without her mother ever fully losing her rights. She has a little sister who is with her in a foster home, and they frequently have meetings with their social worker, which Ellie attends with anxiety. (The name of the student has been changed to protect her privacy.)

For as long as I have known her, she has been struggling to decide whether or not she wants to go back to her mother. Her mom has a history of abusing her and her sister, but has not ever stopped fighting for custody. At hearings, a judge will ask her whether she is ready to graduate from her occasional weekend visits to go back to living with her mother full time.

Earlier this year, Ellie came frantically into class, crying, saying that she had made a huge mistake.

“The judge asked me, and my mom was there, and so I said that I wanted to go with her, but I really don’t," she said. "I think she’ll kill us. She hurt my sister when we were with her last time.”

She left class to call her social worker and fix this problem. She has been asked this question many more times this year, and only recently has she found the strength to say firmly that she does not think that she will ever want to live with her mother.

Her mother’s feelings are hurt, and she tells her so. Ellie feels guilty, because she loves her mother and, despite the negatives, her mother is the constant in her life.

When I walked into school one recent morning and was told that Ellie was in inpatient psychiatric care, I felt the air go out of me.

Ellie can drive me crazy with her endless needs, but she’s a student that I care about. She learns very fast, she is confident and gregarious, and she’s open and honest about who she is.

Many students bottle their feelings up, which may make them better students. Ellie’s expressiveness forces intimacy. I feel like I know her and understand her.

When she saw us in the waiting area, she ran to me, sobbing, and hugged me. She was surprised to see me and the other teacher from our school, my husband. She hadn’t had visitors yet, except her mother, who came to drop off clothes.

Ellie is able to express herself well, and is able to hide the things that she wants to hide. She assured me that she was convincing the therapists that she would be able to leave in less than 30 days.

“Maybe you should stay the whole time, El," I said. "There’s a reason that you are here, and they know what they are doing. They could be helpful to you.”

She acknowledged my point, and said that it wasn’t that bad there. They had rewards that she could earn, like day passes, and she had a bedroom on the second floor. She didn’t mind the kids, most of whom were also from the Bronx.

She told me about how she had been admitted, and how betrayed she felt by her foster mother, who had decided she needed to go. She explained that she would have to go to a new foster home when she left, which meant that she would be separated from her sister, and that her mother was angry with her for refusing to go with her.

“Don’t you want to try to stay with your sister?” I asked.

“No, I think we need some time apart,” she replied somberly, having considered the alternatives on her own.

“But she’s your sister!" I said. "Lots of times siblings don’t get along and drive each other crazy -- but they are there no matter what, whether you want them or not.” I reflected my own vision of family onto her, but she deflected it with a shrug.

When your family hasn’t ever been there for you, I guess you have see family support as a choice. And so, while I looked at her sister as a familiar source of continuity, she saw family in a different way.

I didn’t push. What do I know, really, about what life is like for her? I just know her as her teacher, and I think of what is best for her in terms of what makes her most successful at school. But that’s not the equivalent of what she needs in order to be O.K. outside of school.

It is not all that unusual to have something like this happen at my school. Students are often taken out of school or class for some terrible, unimaginable reason. They are resilient. They come back, they overcome -- but at a cost.

Ellie’s body is scarred, and her bright young mind lashes out violently on frequent occasions. Other students react in different ways, all of them moving forward, but slightly, permanently changed.

They are incredible in their strength. We ask them to sit quietly at a desk and complete their work and remain focused and ask questions and do homework. We ask them to behave as though these other things are not happening -- and we feel upset when they don’t do as we ask.

We are their teachers, and they know what we expect and they know how to succeed. Perhaps that is a gift to them -- the simplicity of our needs in a world that is chaotic and scary.

But when bad things happen to our kids, it hits us hard, and reinforces how limited our impact can be. We don’t have the solutions, and even if we did, we don’t have the power to fix the things that are broken in their lives.

Ellie was excited by the stack of work that I brought her. She will do it all, and she will return to class in 30 days. She will be happy to be back, and we will be happy to have her.

But nothing that we can give to her, or to any of the students like Ellie, can take away the bad hands that life has dealt them. And the skills that will matter most -- their ability to overcome, to show up, to sit still, to keep learning -- are not the skills that we will have taught them.