by Kelly Gregory, Greenville County Teacher
Last week — on my assigned day, at my assigned time — I reported to school to pack up my classroom. In a building that is usually full of sounds — teaching and talking and music — you could have heard a pin drop. It was a sobering reminder of all the things that aren’t happening in that building right now.
And then today — on my assigned day, at my assigned time — I reported to school again, this time spending several hours sorting and filing paperwork. And as I often do, I spent more time than I had planned getting lost in my students’ files. As you can probably imagine, some of what you see in those pages is uplifting to the soul: flipping to the back to see what that sweet boy looked like in kindergarten, or noticing at what age that wonderfully happy girl graduated from speech therapy. But more often than not, a lot of what you see are things that you just wish you didn’t have to see. The kinds of things that remind you just how heavy some of our children’s backpacks really are.
And as I sat there in that room, I couldn’t help but think about all of our children who have been home these last few months, in environments that a lot of us don’t want to think about. The ones who are desperately wishing they could come back to school, not just because they miss their friends, but because it is safe. And consistent. With adults who notice when something isn’t quite right.
A few weeks ago, media outlets began showing that report numbers from the South Carolina Department of Social Services had drastically decreased since schools were closed. Surprising? Not really. Because after all, school is one of the few places filled to the brim with mandatory reporters, who are legally required to report suspected cases of abuse or neglect. If students aren’t at school, it’s much harder for teachers to know if something is amiss. It’s harder to know if Johnny seems rattled again today. Or if Jane is wearing that same piece of unwashed clothing for the 10th day in a row. Or if Bobby has a bruise on his face that wasn’t there yesterday. No one else notices that Susan is still reading significantly below grade level. Or that Matthew is stashing food in his pockets because he’s hungry all the time.
And the longer I sat in that room, the more I started to think about the parallels between this pandemic and the barriers facing so many of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children. Whether or not these ills exist isn’t in question— we know that things like abuse, neglect, addiction and generational poverty all exist. Even though you can’t always see them, they are here, just as this virus is here. We know that they spread quickly, just as this virus does, and that they claim victims, just as this virus claims victims. And just as we are asking our health care system to do right now, we ask schools — teachers, counselors, administrators — to turn on a dime and fix it all.
We ask teachers to heal all who walk in, even those with the severest of preexisting conditions. We ask teachers to look at a room full of 30 patients, some much sicker than others, and promise that they all will get the very best care. That they will all be well. We ask teachers to look through years upon years of troubling patient history and produce just the right cure at just the right time. We ask teachers to be the mask, disinfectant and ventilator all in one — to be both the shield and the treatment for our most vulnerable children. To be their best bet for moving through the days unscathed. For every student who walks through those doors — even the ones who have already been told there was no hope — that school must provide the miracle cure. And surely that fancy new program or flashy new textbook will help, won’t it?
But I just can’t help but ask: What if that wasn’t how we did things? What if we didn’t ask schools to have all of the treatments, all at the same time, every day? What if, as a society, we worked toward making some of those treatments obsolete? What if, as a society, we decided that we wanted to be proactive, not reactive? What if we decided that we were going to address the root causes, not just the symptoms?
What if we decided that prioritizing things like prenatal care for every woman, regardless of socioeconomic status, was worth it? What if we realized that providing equal access to quality early childhood education really was in everyone’s best interest? What if we made sure that every child who needed an evidence-based early intervention service received it? What if beds at addiction treatment facilities weren’t luxuries reserved for the rich and famous? What if, when we saw an illness coming, we actually looked at what the research was telling us and did everything we could in that moment to at least lessen the severity? What if we started our healing from the inside, rather than just figuring out the next prescription to write?
To be sure, almost all educators chose their paths because they are helpers. Like most in the medical field, the desire to nurture is just part of who we are, and very few of us have ever gotten into our cars at the end of the day and thought, “Thank goodness no one needed me today.”
But what if many of our toughest cases came in just a little bit healthier? What if they came into our rooms with full bellies and clearer minds? Minds that weren’t weighed down with things like the unpaid electric bill or the stressful noises that played through the night. Even minds that had been able to develop in a nurturing environment during that ever-important Zero to Three window. What if, when they came to us, all of their vitals were stable and they just needed their checkup? What if, when they left us, we didn’t have to worry about what was waiting for them outside of our walls?
What if the adults making the policy knew what an ACE score was? What if we stopped asking our children to be so resilient all the time, and we finally admitted that we aren’t doing everything we should to provide every child with the best possible chance at success? What if we said that we aren’t okay with valuing certain lives more than others, and then we backed up our words with actions?
What if we realized that moving from illness to wellness really is a matter of replacing “I” with “We”?
That’s a treatment plan I could get behind.
Kelly Gregory, teacher
Greenville County Schools