As I sat at my desk, proctoring the final exam for the math class I teach, I became frustrated. As we all do at times, I went to Facebook to let out my frustrations about my current situation. But before I made my post, something happened.
I was just about to make a post about how annoying it was to have a student ask for help on almost every final exam question when I spent the last two weeks reviewing all test questions while she decided to ditch class. How annoying it was to help with something a student made a choice not to be a part of for weeks. No one else was asking these questions because they were here for the review. It was frustrating…
But then, as the test time continued, police sirens wailed as a ghetto bird (helicopter) began circling above the area. And it hit me. Not that I did not know, but it was a reminder. The constant stress and trauma these students deal with, this girl included, makes it hard to come to school, and even harder to focus when they decide to show up. And sadly, the students have become numb; they didn’t even look up with curiosity about the noises they were hearing. Like the usual sounds of a small dog barking in the suburbs of our nation’s cities, there was no strangeness in the sounds they heard. No alarm to the situation. Just another every day sound in their everyday lives.
I teach in Watts, a neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles best known nationally for its 1965 and 1992 Riots. Amongst many of the positives this neighborhood has to offer, it is a neighborhood in which, based on the 2000 census, only 2.9% of its residents aged 25 and older hold a four-year degree. It is filled with rival gangs, including the infamous Grape Street Crips and Bounty Hunter Bloods. Veritably, it is a school that centers rival gangs, with rivals living on opposite sides of the very fences that enclose the school.
I have a cousin from Connecticut who recently visited the city for a few days. My cousin, who attended private schools in Stamford his entire life, heard a helicopter above us and exclaimed, “Holy crap! Is that a helicopter? That’s crazy! I’ve never actually seen one hovering around looking for somebody like that before!” For him, the moment was abnormal and outrageous. He was experiencing a scene that seemed to have been pulled out of a John Singleton movie. So, for my students, the normalcy of sirens crying and the helicopters circling is based on the environment in which they live. And we all deal with stress and trauma differently. Some thrive and use it as a tool to catapult their success. Some internalize the pain and pressure and find outlets to feel more in control (choosing not to go to class, choosing to not do work, etc.) Some manage to keep an even keel, allowing things to affect their emotions, but processing and dealing in a way that allows them to maintain.
And coming along with the stress of the outside world, the gangs, drugs, violence, and police harassment are just additions to the negative at-home lives many of my students deal with consistently. With a lack of education in the household, family members in prison, and the need to attend monthly funerals, the home life for many of the students are often the toughest imaginable. And to top off this proverbial stress cake with the icing of more common stresses of growing up as a teenager (puberty, parental control, fitting in, dating, acne, school work, etc.), you can understand the reasons some students may feel it’s all just too much and try to gain control of something by ditching a class.
So, I will applaud the fact that my student showed up. And respect the fact that she is even asking questions to help her succeed. Because there are a few empty seats in here today. Some of whom did not show up, even when it counted the most.