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Commentary: Guiding Our Children In Trying Times

Teachers welcome students back to Normandy High School
Teachers welcome students back to Normandy High School, the school from which Michael Brown graduated.Seth Freed Wessler / NBC News

I am a school counselor from the St. Louis, Missouri area. Our area of the country has been in the news a lot lately and not for good reasons. Tragedy and discord have hit our city and county hard, and a good percentage of it has been viewed and commented on by thousands, if not millions. It’s all over the internet and you can’t get away from it on television or radio. As I’ve listened and watched, I’ve found myself drawn to the interviews done with the children of Ferguson. Their lives have been disrupted, and forever impacted, by the events in their community. The start of their school year has been delayed by almost two weeks. When they interview the children, that’s what they talk about: school. One high school senior got all dressed up, ready to start on his first day, only to discover that school had been cancelled again. He spoke of being ready and eager to “hit the books.” There have been a number of other interviews with children of varying ages who talked of being disappointed to find that school had been cancelled; smiles came over their faces when they talked about starting kindergarten, or the fun things fifth graders got to do.

The teachers and the schools in the area have been amazing. Sack lunches are being offered to the families. Teachers are holding “learning sessions” in local libraries and are out on the street holding up signs that say, “Drop Your Children Off”. Inside, kids are practicing math facts, doing art projects, reading. Coaches have the football teams out practicing; after all, they have a season to play. They are doing the things with kids that kids ought to be doing. They are restoring normal, and normalcy seems to be a rare commodity these days.

I’ll tell you why I felt compelled to write this piece. I was recently asked how schools should address the Ferguson issue. My answer was simple: follow the lead of the children. If they want to talk about it, talk about it. If they don’t bring it up, let normalcy reign. Not one child interviewed has said, “I can’t wait to get back to school to talk about what’s happening here.” They’ve all spoken about learning, about being with their teachers, about their education.

The person who asked me the question seemed incredulous at my answer, that we wouldn’t look for ways to make these events part of our curriculum. So allow me to make some points here:

  1. School is supposed to be the safe place. A haven where kids know what to expect, feel included and valued, a place to learn and be with people who care. It’s a place to be normal.
  2. Within our schools are children at all different developmental stages. The little ones probably have no idea about the complexity of the events and the complexity of the feelings and emotions involved. The older students may be more aware of these issues but it may be that they just want to “do school”. What I’ve found with kids is that they are smart; they will talk when they are ready. Some of these students are living these events every single day in their community. Do we also have to impose upon them a deep discussion of the events when they come back to school? Shouldn’t it be up to them whether they have to talk about the situation at hand? Here’s the thing about kids: they will talk when they are ready, and we have to respect and honor them enough to allow them the time and space to process what’s happened and be ready when they come to us with questions. That’s when we talk about it. Allowing our kids time doesn’t mean that we’re avoiding the issues. It means that we are putting the kids’ needs FIRST. School is their place, and they should have a voice in determining what happens in their school day.
  3. The teachers and coaches have already been “talking” about the core issues: respect and acceptance. They’ve been modeling these characteristics consistently, and isn’t this what everything boils down to? Caring for everyone by offering lunches, welcoming everyone by inviting children to learning sessions, being a community by cleaning up the aftermath of protests, by holding football practices, by noting that “on the field, they are all brothers.” Those are the key issues. Whether we have an intentional conversation about the specific events or not, we are talking, teaching and living respect and acceptance every single day in our schools. If you look at the National Model of the American School Counselor Association, you will find that every component of the curriculum deals with respect and acceptance. It’s not a one-time deal, it’s every single day and every single lesson.

I stand in the hallways of my school every day in between classes and watch kids pass by. Today, I really looked at them. I saw laughter, excitement, enthusiasm. I saw kids talking seriously in groups, others walking in couples, some hustling as the one minute warning bell rang. I saw kids who are living in the moment, enjoying the normalcy of life and being in a place where they are safe, welcomed and valued. They’re smart, and they will let us know if there are things we need to talk about. In the meantime, I think I’m going to let them lead.