I’ve been thinking about an interview I did with kids called “the worst of the worst” – a term that made the executive director of their school wince, and I don’t blame him.
As is often the case with physically and emotionally abused kids like these, their stories were unforgettable. They've been living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a diagnosis once limited to Vietnam veterans but now extended to children in an urban war which shakes the very foundation of their beliefs about safety and shatters their assumptions of trust.
So these interviewees were skittish. They were exhausted and wound up simultaneously, heads down on their desks, or unable to sit in their chairs. They were not happy to be in school in July, and so they were rebellious. They would not, in effect, give this writer their names.
Determined, I called this their great opportunity. “I write these things that are published, which means all of the grown-ups who believe in this place and who want you to do well will read what I write.”
“And they should hear from you, because you’re the guys who matter here.”
“This is your chance.”
“To be millionaires?” One of them quips.
“That’s right, to be millionaires. To be in the news. To be heard.”
Interest was piqued. Of my voice recorder, they wondered would they have a chance to hear themselves. “Absolutely. I would hate to have someone interview me and then not get to hear what I said.”
Would they get to read about themselves? “Well, of course.” The floodgates then opened – a torrent of sounds and laughter, and finally competing – not fighting, but competing – to be heard.
They had big plans.
“I want to go to Africa!”
“I want to be a Fireman! No! Can I change that? I want to be at least three things!”
“I think we should have a drama club.”
“I’m on the Student Council!”
“Can you spell disestablishtentarianism?”
“Well, that’s not how you pronounce it, but I‘m impressed that you asked.” (Let me say right here, that when I went home, I had to check that to be sure.)
They made me laugh. And then they made me laugh harder.
Begging for more time, as I shut off a voice recorder full of dreams the littlest of us didn’t get to have until now, they shouted over each other: “I’m the teacher! I’m the teacher!” I wish I'd told them what I was thinking: “In fact, you are.”
Truly, I hope we grant writers ultimately activate new and creative ways to connect vulnerable populations to authentic possibility. These stories redefine learning, and these kids graduate from despair, when they're noticed. Notice them enough, and these particular students might make trauma look like, well, "history."
PS: Disestablishmentarianism: the longest word in the English Dictionary. I looked it up.