Wednesday, April 19, 2017

the Ones we lose


Last week, right before Easter and in the middle of Passover, a vandal spray painted Nazi, anti-Jewish, and anti-LGBTQ messages on a Jewish Community Center and United Church of Christ in my neighborhood. The Community Center is a place I have bought gifts for family.  The church is a place I have both attended and led workshops, though it’s not my home congregation. The community rallied and removed the graffiti, but the attack has me in a deeply reflective place.

They quickly caught the alleged perpetrator: a 20 year old, who had attended a high school in my district. Had his eyes not looked dead in the photo he might have been handsome and capable looking.  Word among my former students on social media was that he is a member of local white supremacist groups; groups I did not know existed in my community. I had not been his teacher, but for a mile or two distance one direction or the other, I might have been.

I can still remember almost 20 years ago when a student was arrested, my first “loss.” A colleague, older and more experienced said, “You can’t save them all.”  It was one of the hardest things to hear.  It still causes me pain that we don’t find a way to save them all.

Each “loss”: each drug overdose, each suicide, each prison sentence is a blow to your own “why” for teaching and being.  Just as each success, each life affirmation is a cause for joy. For teachers our “why I teach” is often to help each child to find a path to life’s gifts, and when one loses their way, or does not learn the lessons that will help them navigate life,  it triggers deep introspection for those who taught that child.

What did I miss? What could I have done differently? Could I have done more? How did this happen?

Ironically, students we lose the most these days are on opposite sides of the political spectrum.  I have been to memorial services for recent former students whom I knew struggled with gender identity and sexuality, heard of students who had wound up in prison, and visited the hospital for bullied students who OD’d.  

Until now, I had never thought it through that white supremacist boys (or girls) are lost; just as in need of help as our LGBTQ, or our impoverished students. I don’t mean that we should back away from acceptance, defense, and caring for our LGBTQ students or stop helping those who live with fewer resources.  It is just a realization to me the common cause of their struggling is feeling left out, marginalized, disrespected, and unmoored from belonging.

The conversations overheard of young white-supremacist men saying, “We are taking back our country,” speaks to a feeling of being outcast, and rejected.

The young man who spray-painted the community center and church is lost in similar ways to the Trans kid who died at his own hand or the at-risk kid who overdosed from despair. One’s alienation expressed in self harming despair, the other’s in violent hatred for others.

Both beg the question: Why am I not accepted and included in the compassionate caring of family, friends, and community? Why am I seen as unworthy of love and acceptance?

Clearly, there is no pat answer for either’s lostness.  But there is a mandate for us as families, neighbors, teachers, schools, and communities.

We have to ask ourselves why,  and change the way we are treating our children and adolescents so that they don’t arrive on the doorstep to adulthood with anger and despair in their hearts.

We have to understand how we are systematically doing things in our culture and society that bring them to such a sense of despair, and we have to stop doing those things.  We must find the ways to include and connect with those who feel most bereft of care, and reach out to them, support them, and create systems that are inherently kinder, affirming, and more giving and forgiving.

We have to find a way to save our “lost” children before their anguish tears us all apart.