Earlier this year, my first year of teaching ninth- and 10th-grade English, I taught a graphic novel called “Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty.” It tells the true and tragic tale of 11-year-old Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, who, in the summer of 1995, was shot in the head by his own gang after a murder attempt gone bad.
Many of my students related to the book and its themes. Like Yummy, they too had been raised against a backdrop of racism and economic hardship and left the safety of their beds each morning to face the constant threat of street violence. Some came from families that had moved from Chicago—Yummy’s hometown—to Minneapolis, with the express intent of escaping gun violence.
In teaching the book, I challenged my students to grapple with a difficult, central question: Was Yummy a monster or a victim? To push them farther, I extended the unit into an inquiry around the history of housing segregation and the creation of American ghettos.
As a final assessment for the book, I gave students a few options for an essay. The prompt that most students chose was a personal essay about how their own environments—home, school, family, and community—shaped their paths to success.
A Student Named Naomi
Many students wrote about their experiences growing up in North Minneapolis, a historically poorer and Blacker area of the city. Others wrote about moving to Minneapolis from other cities or states. I had read and graded well over a hundred of these essays when I opened an essay attached to an email from a student named Naomi.
Naomi was a student with whom I had not yet formed much of a relationship. She was relatively quiet in class, but seemed to have friends and turned in good work. At parent conferences, I had had a pleasant and productive conversation with her mom, a literacy specialist at a community nonprofit. Naomi seemed like a normal 15-year-old, and I had little reason to believe otherwise. I opened her essay on my laptop, unprepared for what I was about to read.
The first line read, “My entire life, I’ve been physically, emotionally and mentally abused.” She continued on. Her father had abused her entire family for years. They had moved from one domestic abuse homeless shelter to another. She had attempted suicide multiple times in the past several years, including once during this school year.
I was floored. Here was a student who showed no signs of distress in school. She was on the school’s badminton team and loved Taylor Swift. She earned mostly A’s and B’s and sang in the choir. What clues had I missed that she had tried to end her life? What signs had I neglected that she did not have a home to return to when the final bell rang at 3:10 p.m. each day? What markers had I overlooked that she had endured abuse at the hands of someone who was supposed to protect her?
‘Student Trauma Is Real and Pervasive’
Naomi is not the only student I have this year who has attempted suicide, or has been abused, or does not have a home. Nor is she the only one who comes to school each day and hides these horrors behind a smile and good grades.
The more I get to know my students, the more I discover the staggering trauma that they have no choice but to confront each day. Through their writing, students have opened up about being raped, watching family members be senselessly shot, and coping with trauma through self-medication. Before they even set foot in our school, my students have already fought an endless series of battles just to survive.
And yet, when they arrive at school, we expect them to sit still, be quiet and copy down in their notebook the elements of Shakespearean tragedy, as though they are not living those elements repeatedly within and beyond the classroom walls. We censor the texts they read based on sex or violence, as though that might protect them from the sexual violence some have already experienced. And we expect teachers to heroically undo years of trauma and the sometimes destructive mechanisms many of our kids have acquired in order to cope: anger, apathy, chemicals, self-harm.
These expectations are not only unrealistic; they are irresponsible. Too often, they divert already scarce resources toward mitigating symptoms rather than confronting root causes when students fall short of academic goals.
To be clear, our most vulnerable, trauma-impacted students (and there are many of them, more than any teacher may ever know) need high expectations and academic rigor. However, those seeds will not bear fruit if trauma is allowed to strangle their roots. Student trauma is real and pervasive.
We Need Teachers That Can Recognize Trauma and Respond
A 2014 study conducted by Child Trends, a nonpartisan research center, estimated that 46 percent of children in the U.S.—nearly half—have experienced at least one of the eight most common Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) before they turn 18.
These experiences—including living with someone with a mental illness, witnessing or experiencing violence, experiencing the loss or separation of parents, having an incarcerated parent or family member, and economic hardship—place students at risk for damaging social, economic, and health outcomes later in life.
Importantly, that 46 percent is not evenly distributed, because while trauma does not discriminate by skin color or class, it is a frequent companion to both. Thus, students of color and those in poverty-impacted schools are at greatest risk.
To combat this, we need teachers who are trained to recognize signs of trauma and respond appropriately. We need to make mental health support more accessible to students during and outside of school. We need social-emotional skills to be a cornerstone of mandated curriculum rather than a diversion from it. We need wraparound services that brings students, teachers, and families together and targeting the same goals.
Only when our expectations of our students are matched by the political will necessary to provide them the resources they need will we begin to see what they are truly capable of.