"There was blood and feces everywhere," my niece said, explaining the strange turn of events in her 6th period art class. She had a substitute teacher that day so she knew her class would be off task, but she was not prepared for what actually happened.
Her 15-year-old classmate felt her water break 15 minutes into the class. The female sub called for the principal, who quickly took off her blazer and rolled up her sleeves. Another classmate ran to get the girl's boyfriend, a senior. He held his screaming girlfriend's hand. The paramedics arrived, lifting the girl from the floor to the gurney. By then, most of the students were put out of the room. My niece stayed. She saw the anguish. She smelled the stench. She heard the baby girl's first cry.
My niece went to her 6th period art and witnessed the act of childbirth. It happened to them.
This story is real. It occurred in a Chicago high school earlier this month. The pregnant girl came to school despite feeling contractions on the bus that morning. She attended class, despite being a week past her due date. To add to her misery, my niece told me, the teen mom was on Twitter from her hospital bed, trying to fend off nasty jokes and comments about her.
I'm just one person, but I have a large family. Many of my relatives are school-aged children being educated in Chicago Public Schools and districts in the surrounding suburbs. In fact, this year alone, four of my relatives will graduate from 8th grade. When I talk to my nieces, nephews, cousins and adopted younger brothers, I get an ear-full about the trauma and drama occurring in their schools. To quote Marvin Gaye, it's enough to "make me want to holler and throw up both my hands."
Just last month, my two nephews' and two younger brothers' elementary school was placed on soft lock-down. The police were called, and the media reported on it. The black principal had fired her white male science teacher for an undisclosed reason, and on his way out he called the students the n-word and said he wanted to shoot them all. Bomb threat.
My sister ran up to the school in a panic, hoping our four little ones were safe. They were safe physically, but not psychologically. They couldn't understand why their teacher hated them and wished they were dead. It happened to them.
I have a handsome young cousin who is as upstanding as they come. He's a junior at a high school in the near-western suburbs of Chicago. As a community service project, the school organized a blood drive for the teachers, staff and seniors who were at least 18 years old. The event was a huge success, but it was a devastating blow to others. After the donated blood was tested, 20 seniors learned that they were HIV positive. It happened to them.
My first and most-read blog post called "Haunting Words to Inspire Every Teacher," was all about these four words: It. Happened. To. Them. Despite our frustrations and disappointments as educators—and there are many—it's the students who suffer the most when the educational system breaks down. Thirty years from now, we will be immortal characters in our students' personal essays: Will we be the heroes, the villains, or the bystanders?
Schools are microcosms of society. Despite our best efforts, the problems of this world seep in through the very mortar of the school's brick walls. We may not be able to "fix" students or their problems, but our job is to at least keep hope on the table.
Teenage pregnancy, cyberbullying, racism, violence, and HIV infection became very real to the kids in my family this year. And as big as my family is, it pales in comparison to the millions of public school children in America. Many of these kids can also tell similar painful life lessons learned while at school, and that's one of the reasons why one-third of American teenagers drop out.
We try so hard to teach academic content that we often miss the opportunities to actually listen to and validate our students. I am guilty at times.
This blog post is intended to encourage all school professionals to take moments in the day, every day, to recall the phrase that centers our perspective on the humanity of our students: "It happened to them."