A schoolteacher’s lament: Save the children— from their parents

A Philadelphia teacher’s lost students

8 minute read
Juanita had greatness within her. She also had an unstable mother.
Juanita had greatness within her. She also had an unstable mother.
When I moved my second-grade classroom on August 19th, I inherited materials from the teacher who previously occupied my new room. I began the laborious process of sifting through someone else’s junk. Ultimately I came upon some troubling folders.

The first concerned a student I’ll call “Bob.” Last year Bob started at our school two or three weeks after school began, which is not a good sign. His mother was not from this country and, according to the counselor, had had some problems prior with Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services.

At first Bob was sullen. When I would tell the class to get out their books, Bob would just sit there and do nothing. When I asked him a second time, he would yell at me, or take out the books and throw them on the floor or his desk.

Unstable mother

He would mumble and then run into a corner or, worse, run out to the hallway. Bob couldn’t work in a group— an essential part of second grade life— because he’d alienate his classmates by saying something inappropriate. Sometimes he’d put his head down and cry.

I could never reach his mom, but I called the school counselor about his behavior many times.

After I had taught Bob for about two months, his work from his previous school arrived. I couldn’t believe how poor it was.

Something was wrong. I wondered if I could fix it.

A first clue turned up shortly before Christmas break when Bob’s mother came to drop him off at school just as I was running to my car.

She didn’t speak English well, so we chatted in broken English and her native tongue, which I speak fluently.

After a few moments, I understood Bob’s issue. His mother was clearly unstable and appeared to be high.

“Treat my son as though he were your own!” she commanded me.

Bob continued to flounder, and I continued to worry.

Bob’s dad arrives

The day after Christmas vacation, I bumped into the school counselor. “Did you hear?” she said. “Bob’s mother died over Christmas!” She didn’t know whether or not Bob would return to school.

Nevertheless, two weeks later— and after we had dropped his name from the roll sheet— Bob returned. He didn’t seem sad or morose, at first. His father, who reinstated Bob, seemed strict yet kind. He told me to call him when Bob became defiant.

Miraculously, Bob seemed to be a completely different child. He no longer daydreamed. He tried doing his work without fighting and would sit and read when instructed to do so.

A ”˜better environment’

This good behavior lasted about two weeks and then disintegrated. Bob got suspended for fighting. His father, who picked Bob up every day after school, grew accustomed to hearing about his bad behavior.

Then dad told me he was taking Bob to another state. He had relatives there, and he thought Bob would fare better in that environment.

And so, one day, Bob was gone for good.

Not long ago I found two folders of Bob’s work”“ from kindergarten and first grade. Back then I had tried to give his dad these folders, but I couldn’t get him on the phone. I was left with these two folders, and now, I didn’t know what to do with them.

A few days ago, shedding many tears, I tossed the two folders. There seemed nothing else to do.

Juanita’s potential

At roughly the same time, I came across an old folder for another second-grade student who had moved on. Unlike Bob, Juanita was a gem— very smart, sweet and kind to everyone. She was one of my favorites. Everyone liked her.

Juanita, too, had transferred from another school, but she arrived on the first day. Her mom was with her and seemed attentive.

Juanita could read, although I could see that she hadn’t been pushed. I sensed potential greatness inside of her. With a little bit of encouragement on my part, I knew, she would be tops in my class.

And she was. Perfect attendance, work always neat and good and never a bad mistake. I dared to dream about the great things this girl would one day achieve for our nation.

Then, suddenly, something weird happened. Juanita would miss an occasional day. Then she wouldn’t show up at all for a few days. Then she’d come late.

”˜Tell me what’s wrong’

One day— a day she arrived late— the class was reading a story and working on a graphic organizer. I gave Juanita the work and told her what to do. She looked at her paper, transfixed and unable to work.

Without thinking, I barked at her to get to work. Then I stopped myself. Juanita looked so sad, overwhelmed and confused.

I asked the other students to work independently and asked the child sitting next to Juanita to move to the library so I could sit next to her.

“Juanita,” I asked quietly. “Can you tell me what’s wrong?” She didn’t move or speak.

Immediately I wondered what abuse she had suffered. You learn to recognize it after you’ve seen it so many times.

”˜Did someone touch you?’

“Juanita,” I said very quietly, “It’s me. Miss Kean. Remember, I am your friend, Juanita!” She looked up and tears began falling from her eyes.

“Juanita,” I said, struggling to maintain my composure, “whatever it is, I can fix it. I know I can. That’s one thing I do well. Juanita, you are safe here, in this classroom with me and with your friends. Can you tell me what happened?”

She shook her head, no.

“Juanita,” I said again, quietly, “did someone touch you?”

Again she shook her head, no.

“Did someone say something to you?”

She said nothing, but the tears rolled down onto her paper.

The classroom was quiet. All eyes and ears were on me.

Unjustly accused

“Juanita, I am here to help you,” I repeated. “You have to tell me what happened so I can help you. I promise nothing bad will happen to you.”

Juanita turned to me and it was as though the floodgates opened.

“It’s my mom, Miss Kean!” she cried. “She and my aunt, they go out all night long and then she comes home and she yells at me that I have taken her money. But I would never do that, Miss Kean. I don’t ever touch her stuff.”

“Does anyone stay with you while your mom goes out?” I asked.

“Yes, the babysitter.”

“Do you like your babysitter?”

“Yes, she is nice. But when my mom comes home, she can’t stand up. She falls down and then she hurts herself, like the other day she cut her lip and another time she fell and hurt her knee!”

“Juanita,” I asked, “does mom smell kind of funny when she comes home? Does she act kind of dizzy? Does she not speak properly?”

“Miss Kean, are you out with my mom?” she replied. “How did you know she smells funny when she comes home?”

Losing track

I called down to the school counselor. I recounted Juanita’s story. “I think I need to call DHS,” the counselor said.

It turned out there was an open file on the mother. The city’s Department of Human Services had lost track of her when Juanita moved to this school.

What a waste, I thought to myself! Innocent, bright young children, the hope of the future, lost to the insanity of their parents’ lives.

It’s a syndrome I see far too often: highly intelligent children whose parents couldn’t care less about their education. Without their support, the promising child flounders and then ultimately fails.

I kept Juanita’s folder. I would try to find the school to which she transferred and get the work to her new school. But for a girl with a destructive home life, would that make a difference?

Two lives lost. Two children with so much potential. And all I could do was worry about whether or not to toss their folders.♦

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