Education and Adversity

Sorry my posts have become infrequent. I’m in the middle of one of those lovely, exhausting, inspiring, tumultuous life transitions. I have every intention of continuing to blog–so please don’t give up on me–but for a little while, at least, my posting may continue to be patchy.

Actually, I am considering going back to school. Since I have spent all but about two years of my life since age 4 in school (and one of those years “off”, I was actually teaching school), I guess this is not so surprising.

I love learning. During all the chaos and grief of my childhood, school was a safe haven for me. A place where I got to experience new ideas that inspired me, where a whole host of teachers just sat by waiting to engage me in new and interesting worlds, and to support me to strive for my best. And school gave me a place to be when I couldn’t stand to be home, and it gave me a sense of purpose and a generally safe community.

I think I was lucky. And this has completely shaped my life. I have an MFA and I am now considering going back to school for a graduate degree in math or computers and complex systems. And I have been a tutor/teacher for over ten years now.

I imagine that other struggling children have found solace in school, comfort and support in a kind teacher. I can especially imagine children in a poverty stricken or war-torn country finding school to be a safe haven where they can put aside their worries for a short time each day.

But there’s something about schooling for a child living through any number of hard things that can also be particularly challenging–in many cases prohibitively so. And it doesn’t even matter what the nature of the adversity is so much: poverty, abuse, death of a close family member, divorce, war, school bullying. . . People talk about poverty adversely affecting children in school because their parents are more likely to be at work, and less likely to be available for academic support, because there are fewer books in the home, because a smaller premium seems to be placed on intellectualism in the home, because there are fewer resources for things like computers and tutors.

But there’s something beyond all of this that affects every single child living through anything hard–and the more hard stuff, the harder this factor is to overcome in school. And it’s quite simply that children who have hard stuff going on in their lives just have less energy to put into their academics.

My sister did not thrive in school, my cousin dropped out. I watched the little foster boy I’ve talked about so often struggle through his first years of elementary school, finally getting held back in third grade. And I watched as he developed what will probably be a life-long sense that he’s intellectually slow. Which he isn’t. He’s one of the brightest little boys I’ve ever known, but when the other kids were learning to read or add, he was busy worrying about who he was going to live with the next month, whether the people who loved him were still going to be a part of his life, what state he was going to find himself in . . .

Obviously I, on the other hand, thrived in school. But only after a fashion. I have never gotten good grades. I learn well. I teach well. But I never was able to get in every assignment, to do things in a “timely” manner, and in many cases to even pay attention to class lectures. I have just been reviewing my transcripts and it occurred to me that the summer before I started college, one of my best friends died in a car crash; during my second year of college, my cousin killed himself; the year I took “off” of school to teach, the man who was like a father to me died of cancer; and my second year at Wellesley College, my mother died. Now thanks, in part, to the wonderful wonders of dissociation, I managed to stay in school during all of these life events, and to eventually graduate. And, in fact, to learn ancient greek and physics and neuroscience and a number of other things, but school was not always my priority.

But still, I’ve managed. Who knows if I’ll be able to get into a good advanced degree program because of my mediocre grades, though. And the fact is that this factor proves to be prohibitive in the lives of most kids living through severe adversity. Most kids living through severe abuse don’t even graduate from high school.

And there are two related factors that also contribute to this: foster kids end up with way more than the national average of mental disorders like depression, ADD, and borderline personality disorder. It’s just harder to pay attention, as I’ve said, if your life outside of school kind of sucks. And kids who have lived through/are living through a lot of crap I think also often have a sense that the world inside of school/academias priorities are kind of foolish. I mean, what’s the point of turning in busy-work if you don’t know when you’re going to get your next meal? Or if you know that twenty minutes from you kids are working all day in the tomato fields without even a thought about school?

There’s a lot of bull built into the school system. A lot of “do what you’re told” and “follow this path that has been prescribed for you”–kids who have lived through a lot have more trouble jumping through the hoops or behaving for the adults. 1) because it’s not as important. 2) because if adults have screwed them over/are screwing them over, they’re less inclined to want to just blindly follow what the adults say.

On the other hand, this makes them more independent and creative in general. And a lot of kids who have/are living through tough times are more introspective, intelligent, and compassionate. They have the potential to be really great scholars and thinkers if they are encouraged and the doors of academia aren’t just closed to them.

I think what was luckiest for me as a teen was that I was fortunate enough to have teachers who encouraged me but did not make me do the assignments that weren’t as meaningful. They saw my love of learning and my potential even when I was distracted by other things. And they saw that even though my grades weren’t stellar, I had the knowledge, the creativity, and the intelligence to make something of myself, and they encouraged me to do so. Of course, I had other teachers who were complete jerks, but just having those few wonderful ones allowed me to keep going.

I guess if there’s a take home message here, it’s that those of us who teach should look for the potential even within the children who are reading three grade levels behind, and we should try be more flexible and to take ourselves and our systems of doing things a little less seriously.

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About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
This entry was posted in Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Education and Adversity

  1. Thank you for the thoughts, expressed so beautifully, Pam. This piece is certainly worth waiting for! Please keep us posted on your plans, and if you’re looking for a guest poster to take the pressure off, I’d be happy to help out.

  2. pamwatts says:

    Thanks, Lyn. And actually, that might be great. You want to email me with some potential topics?

  3. Pingback: Teaching Literacy to At-Risk Youth | Strong in the Broken Places

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