In December of 1991 I was finishing up my finals and preparing to student teach in the spring. I was so excited! All I could imagine was how fun being with students was going to be. For the most part I was right. I have had very few days in my career when a child has not deeply touched my heart and given me a chance to thank God for the opportunity to interact with sweet souls.
However, this walk has not been all smiles and sunshine. I estimate I have taught about 1500 kids in the past 21 years. There are twelve I can list who I knew had and eventually did cause harm to others, but with me they were always kind and very well-behaved. These children weren't mentally ill, but rather lived in violence and continued what they knew. Yet, somehow or another they respected me and did most things I requested. Several still drop me a note on occasion or when I see them out and about will give me a big hug and tell me all of their positives. We skip over the arrest reports and just continue as if life is simpler. I still see so much potential. My ability to see their potential and ignore what is often reality has been a gift I have prayed for my whole career. I ask God every night to help me see children with His eyes instead of mine. I fail more than I succeed, but when I do catch a glimpse of all of the gifts and talents even the "naughtiest" child has, I am awed I am allowed to simply be a little part of the grand scheme.
Then there have been the children who have a mental illness. I have taught numerous children with behavior and emotional disorders. There have been cutters who cut themselves in class and sit silently with tears falling. There was the licker who would lick the floor or a peer's leg if I wasn't paying very close attention. There was one who was not allowed any sharp objects including a pencil. The work was done in crayon. There was the one who ate anything in sight from pencils to rulers to hair. There was the one who stayed perched upon the desktop like a frog, but scored higher than anyone in the class. The list could go on further. The children could usually be managed if I simply worked with them and encouraged them. I taught the other children to love them and to accept their issues without ridiculing or teasing. Eventually most would melt into our community. We had cues when they were having a bad day and needed to isolate themselves. Life was not perfect, but we all moved through the year. They learned. The other children learned tolerance and I was blessed to learn to love another soul with a tremendous need.
However of all of the children, I can list three who truly frightened me. I would not wish to be alone with these children as they were unpredictable and had a tendency towards violence. There was a look no amount of soothing could change. One moment everything would be fine and the next I was wondering if I could handle the erratic behavior. I have cleared my classroom twice in my career to ensure other students were safe. Both cases were early on when I did not know how to catch the signs. We would have a run of good weeks and then all of a sudden something would happen to set them off. Each of these three children had one thing in common I will never forget, a tired mother. One shared she locked her other children in their rooms and locked her own door at night. One cried hysterically because no one could help her child. The other blamed the school and tried consistently to make every issue our fault. When her child was arrested for murder, the school was at fault somehow or another in her mind.
Of 1500 children, 3 have frightened me. This is a very small percentage, but it only takes one. We have a serious issue in our country. We can blame gun laws. We can blame violence on television. We can blame the lack of security. We can create more things for schools and teachers to manage. The list goes on and on.
The real issue is we have a small percentage of mentally ill children and adults in this country who have little to no chance of being secured. Our schools and our teachers are ill-equipped to manage this type of mental illness and with such a small percentage training and dealing with these issues could be considered a financially poor choice. Our school counselors are used for every type of paperwork imaginable. Schools have no ability to force parents to ensure their mentally ill children consistently take their medication. The children are often extremely bright and use their abilities to manipulate the system. The intricate web of details creates an extremely complicated picture.
For every maniac who creates havoc, there are others with the same issues who did not create disaster. Why? Who helped these people make the right choices and find some peace? Can we clearly define mentally ill from other environmentally created behavior issues? Does environment matter more than genetics? How do we help mothers and fathers raise and manage their mentally ill children? How do we support teachers who are worn out by one child in a class of 25? How do we protect the 24 without infringing on the one child's rights and vice-versa?
One of my favorite songs is by musician Brandon Heath called "Give Me Your Eyes". http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5AkNqLuVgY
We all need to see people through the eyes of God rather than our own eyes. We tend to color the world to make our lives easier. We must see what is missing. We must listen to the people who could actually help prevent these incidents...the people who spend time with these children every day...their teachers and their parents....and work to find real solutions, not more paperwork and bureaucracy. We must work on our communities and our school cultures to create safe places where people are valued and loved.
I am a teacher, which in a single word, sums up my passions and my belief in the future.