Helping Inner City Students Dream and Create Amidst the Violence of Their Daily Lives

Last week into this one, I was in six different inner city elementary schools through my employer with a major arts initiative. It was a hectic whirlwind of a week, but the end result was that most of the students (with only a handful pulled out for bad behavior) each got to have an individual moment of attention from half their school and from us, with their final projects each getting praise. I was a “guest artist” coming in, and I was wowed by some of the final results. I picked out specific design elements that were impressive whenever possible, and praised the overall project when I couldn’t. And the kids lit up. They soaked all that attention up like sponges. They had created something, and that creation was getting positive attention, something that many of them don’t have.

There were so many that I wanted to take home and give them a bath, a good meal, and clean clothes. So many that I could sense the fragility behind their swagger. So many that met my eyes with a soulful gaze. All at various stages of putting their walls up. All at various stages of losing trust in adults, in themselves.

And during this week, the videos from Spring Valley High School emerged, and people crawled out of the woodwork to support the officer’s violent actions against a child 1/3 of his size. Again, people preaching compliance towards a system rife with abuse, preaching we should all “respect” officers because of the badges they carry and the dangerous job they have, and I am ashamed to say that I once said the same not because of any respect toward them but because I wanted the general population to stay safe. But no, this action is not ever okay, especially not in a classroom setting. If any adult man had touched a daughter of mine like that, I would be in jail because my revenge on him would have been swift and merciless and he would no longer have any balls because they would have been shoved down his throat after being ripped off by my bare hands, and I don’t care how rude she was to him. But no daughter of mine would get treated like that by an officer of the law because my husband and I aren’t black.

That people think this action is okay because she didn’t comply with this officer is so wrong. I’ve seen people using it as a tool to complain about millennials yet again and their rude upbringing, lumping the childhood of the inner city child with those in the suburbs, and it is not the case at all. Last week, while at one of the schools, someone was shot on the street less than a block away and the school had to go into a safety drill. This week, on the last day, one of our people noticed two men going after each other with baseball bats just as school was letting out, again only a block away. The children live in this. The parents that struggle to raise them and love them live in this. Having that level of stress, those cortisol levels raised in the brain all the time do terrible things to you. Add a difficulty in getting proper nutrition and being in an education system that’s run like a prison most of the time, is it any wonder that they act the way they do? Beyond that though, how can so many still be in denial about America slipping into a police state? How can so many willingly hand their power over to others? I don’t understand the mindset at all.

I’m glad we were able to do what we did in the schools. Maybe getting them in touch with their creative sides will give them a means to escape the reality of their lives, will give them goals and dreams to work toward to hopefully break the cycle of poverty and abuse. That positive connection to adults may be enough for some of them. But not all. And that hurts.

The Destruction of a Child

I went into an inner city elementary school last week with several people from my work as part of an arts initiative, and I witnessed something very troubling to me. While in the midst of working with a kindergarten class, in a somewhat chaotic situation, one of the teacher aides began yelling and berating a little boy who had started crying. This boy was sitting in his seat, sobbing, and the teacher aide kept going “Stop crying! You have nothing to cry about! Do you want to be taken out of here? Stop crying right now!” I felt like I had been punched in the stomach, as I was continuing to work with the other children, and all of the children surrounding this one stopped smiling and immediately blank faced, not making eye contact, not betraying a single emotion themselves. None of the other teacher aides interceded, and finally the nasty aide pulled the boy out of the room and got him to calm down and brought him back.

I had to walk away. I wanted so badly to slap the lady, to scream at her that she was causing possibly irreparable damage to a potentially already damaged child, not to mention the effect on the rest of the kids, but I was a guest to the school. And, had I done that, who knows what effect that would have had on the students? As soon as I knew I could speak, I did tell one of the people from our organization that is in that school on a regular basis, and she said “Well, we don’t know that situation. It could be a child that just cries for attention. We don’t know what’s going on and can’t judge.” So we went about our business and left. But all I could think is that even if a child is ‘just crying for attention’, it means that something is wrong somewhere, and shouldn’t a little effort be made to find out what was wrong? Maybe he was scared, or had to go to the bathroom, or has some undiagnosed SPD issues. It could be anything, and screaming at him isn’t helping him in the least.

The faces of the other children were what did me in. The total shutting down at such a young age. How often have they had their sense of “I am” destroyed in their short lives by those that are supposed to be caring for and instructing them? How many times have they been told not to speak or show emotion or disrupt what is going on around them? And how many more times can they take such treatment before they permanently shut down? And while I can’t help but have empathy for the aide, who is probably only repeating a cycle that was done to her, or maybe is just too run down with working against the odds in a neighborhood like that with so little resources, or who knows what, I can’t condone the treatment to those students. It is detrimental to all of us in society to allow these cycles to continue.

If I worship anything in this life beyond a generic “higher power”, it is the divine potential we each carry within us, the spark of creation and possibility that exists in our minds and souls. I think this is why I love young children so much. Up until sometime between age 5 and 8, their minds are so open to everything, so willing to soak in life and experience things on both a micro and macro level, and all of their possible future selves coexist in their beings. Then, at some point, the possible future selves get whittled down by outside forces and we become solidified into who we will become and breaking out of those walls grows very difficult. So when I see someone who is supposedly an authority over a young child abusing the position and not treating their responsibilities with care, it is a polluting of something sacred to me. And it hurts. A lot.

At the very least, everyone in the class, including the sobbing boy, enjoyed the work we did and got to be active participants in the program. They got to experience something they’ve never experienced before, and with a little encouragement and praise, they were beaming and excited. And maybe what we presented will be something that will get at least a handful of them through their difficult young lives and able to pull themselves out of the cycle they are currently trapped in. But my heart grieves for the ones that are lost already.