Freedom Isn’t Easy

I could tell you a lot of cool things about my school, but yesterday, the sheriff’s department escorted one of our students out of our school in handcuffs; and earlier this year, one of our former students (who had dropped out) was shot in the head while sitting in a parked car at two in the morning; and one of the people in the car when the gun went off was also a former student, and he went to prison soon after because, by being in the car that night, he violated his parole; and earlier last year, two other former students were accused (though not convicted) of stealing from their employers, with each incident independent from the other.

No matter how cool our school might be, the truth is that we attract some difficult kids, and while we try to provide them with every opportunity to take control of their education and, in the process, gain control of their lives, too many of them find the freedom too difficult to handle.

One of my students told me yesterday that they feel like they’re living in a role-playing game because even for the simplest of decisions, they sometimes roll a die to decide what they should do. When the student told me this, they were thinking of episodes in their life where they actually, physically rolled a six-sided die, but they were not connecting this anecdote to their immediate reality, wherein they were seated on the floor, consulting a new-age ripoff of Tarot cards for insight into their current predicament. They honestly didn’t see a connection between their inability to make simple decisions and their desire to seek out answers to life’s problems in a deck of commercially produced and professionally marketed cards.

Earlier in the class, for reasons I don’t need to go into, I found myself having to explain to this same student the market forces that lead to SPAM phone calls and emails, a conversation that resulted in the student returning a SPAM phone call they had received earlier in the day to demand an answer from the telemarketer as to how her company acquired the student’s phone number. The conversation did not go well; my student was being earnest and the telemarketer refused to budge from her script, leading me to have to provide explicit instructions as to how and why my student should simply hang up the phone, regardless of whether the telemarketer was done speaking on the other end.

All of which is to say that most of the students who come to my school have difficulty with the simplest things. It’s not that they are dumb — in fact, most of the kids I work with are incredibly bright — it’s that some simple but important things about living in society do not click into place for them like they do for you and me. They just don’t get it, and unfortunately, some of them never will.

We designed our school for one mission: to provide every student, regardless of their abilities, with the opportunity to be interested and engaged in their own education (including their social-emotional education). But so many of our students come to us without being interested or engaged in anything beyond their own drama, or what’s worse, their own trauma, which makes them unable to stay out of their own way.

Our tactic to overcome this is both simple and incredibly hard: We try to make them feel safe. At bottom, that means safe not just from something, but also to become something. The kids who come to us have rarely heard an encouraging word; they’ve been told they are worthless, and in some cases, they’ve been abandoned by their dearest family members, literally left alone in the world with no one to protect or care for them.

It’s no wonder they have trouble making decisions. They have zero self-confidence, and so they don’t trust themselves. Every decision they’ve ever made has led them to where they are now: kicked out of almost every school they’ve ever attended — some residential, some not, some institutional, some not — told that they don’t belong, told to get out, told that they’re a freak of some kind. Their parents, if they’re around, are rarely worth much, and what they are worth is often compounded with negative interest in their kids, which can often mean verbal, physical, or sometimes even sexual abuse, resulting in the child experiencing incredible pain and suffering at the hands of the people society tells them are supposed to love them more than anyone.

Why would they trust themselves? Why would they trust anyone?

And then we come along, offering these students with incredibly acute social-emotional needs a true progressive model of education — one that is student-centered and student-driven, where they’re asked not to do as they’re told but, instead, to do as they think they ought to.

What do we expect will happen? That they’ll all start singing kumbaya, and butterflies will descend from the heavens, and within days, they’ll each be as happy and as engaged as the students on a college brochure?

No. What we expect to happen is what happened today. One student will be escorted from the building in handcuffs. Another will have such an emotional crisis that they will collapse to the ground shaking and in tears. Another will scream so loud on the drive to school that their driver will have an actual panic attack in the car and be unable to feel her hands and feet. Another will refuse to comply with even the simplest of requests, choosing instead to physically wrestle with their teacher. Still others will actively avoid your best advice and refuse to work on the projects they need to exhibit publicly in just over two weeks.

Trying to give kids conscious and moral control over their freedom is a struggle. It’s a real struggle.

Thankfully, I’ve had enough days that were the complete opposite of yesterday to know that, with most kids, the struggle is worth it.

And so while I should expect days like today, I should also be ready to celebrate success whenever I can find it. Like the fact that yesterday two of my students donated their time to complete the duties of a staff member who had to leave early due to a family emergency. Or the fact that the day before, one of my students consulted with a professional in the student’s field of interest to verify the quality of their homework, and the student did so with only the most minimal of supports. Or the fact that, earlier in the week, another of my students, despite being incredibly tired and out of sorts and despite having a history of verbal diarrhea, found enough self-control to be respectful with their peers, their teachers, and the public for longer than I thought possible.

All of them did those things not because they were told to, but because, as free thinkers, it was what they thought they ought to do.

Some days are a struggle. But the struggle really is worth it.