I talked with one of my former students this week. If you didn’t know, I was once a teacher. In the late 70s, early 80s, I taught emotionally disturbed adolescents in Springfield, Illinois; and I did it by choice even. Funny story, at least to me … I once ran into a teacher I had known while student teaching, and she asked me where I was working. I told her I was teaching at McFarland Mental Health Center, and she responded, “Oh, you couldn’t get anything else?”
The thing was … that was exactly where I wanted to be. I loved working with teenagers, first of all, and secondly, I got to work with kids who had had a really tough time in life. Yes, it was a challenge. Yes, some of them were a little rough around the edges. And no, I didn’t have an extreme amount of patience (I got that one a lot).
I loved the idea that maybe I could make a difference, that I might help point them in the right direction, and that when they left me, at least they would know that someone cared about them. In a tragic number of cases, I learned I was often one of the first people who did show they cared.
McFarland was a short-term residential facility for the Springfield region. Kids who came to us were enrolled in their regular schools, and I would teach whatever classes they were taking back home. In the best situations, their home teachers and I would work together to keep them on track, but it didn’t always work out that way. A lot of times I had to wing it, trying my best to keep them current.
My goal was always for kids to feel safe in my classroom and to feel good about themselves. My philosophy was if kids felt safe and happy, they could learn. I still believe that, although my first supervisor and I butted heads on that a lot. She wanted me to push academics harder, and although I did emphasize academics (um, yeah, because I was a teacher ... and I might still be annoyed by that), I still believe the kids who were the most successful in my classroom were the ones who, in many cases for the first time, felt good about themselves.
I didn’t have a long time with my kids. Once they were functioning better in their lives (or as would soon become the case, once the insurance companies cut them off), they were discharged, and most of the time they were sent back to the same awful situations that had brought them to us in the first place.
That was the heartbreaking part. There was often little support for them once they left, and we had to hope that at some point, they would be able to find their way. There were some girls I suspected had been sexually abused, and I wish I had been able to get them to open up. I wish I had known more about schizophrenia so I could have been more helpful to kids struggling with that. I wish I hadn’t listened to someone over me who told me not to make waves and instead I’d spoken up for kids I suspected were going back to abusive homes. I had never heard of the term “mandated reporter” back then, so there was little I could do. Dave and I even talked for a bit about becoming licensed as a foster home so we could take in a few kids, but we realized we were babies ourselves and probably couldn’t provide what they needed.
So I learned to let go, and I hoped for the best. I will say there were a few instances where it seemed that the parents had done everything they could. These same parents were also the ones who were active in the treatment program by participating in family therapy. I could see real improvement in their kids’ situations, and I felt that when they left the program, they were all heading in the right direction.
My former student – I’ll call her Lisa – did not have one of those families. Her situation was so bad that she became a ward of the state and was “in the system” as they say. She’d had a horrible upbringing and then lived through some awful foster situations, so the odds were certainly against her.
She was able to track me down recently, and we had a phone conversation that lasted …. I am not kidding …. 6-1/2 hours. We did not stop talking the whole time, and we could have continued if we’d had more time. All these years later, we were no longer teacher and student. We were friends …. the kind of friends who don’t see each other for years and years and then pick up right where they left off.
She is a beautiful human who believes in doing everything she can to make the world a kinder place. She is someone I would be friends with even if I had not already known her. She is smart and funny and talented and happy with herself and her life. I need to say that again. She’s happy!
She is grateful to the people who helped her along the way. I’m honored beyond words to be on that list, but I am far from being the only one. I’m also grateful to the people who were there for her. Cunningham Children’s Home in Urbana, Illinois gets a big shout out as well.
So after giving up hope in most cases because the system failed so many kids, after hearing of some awful outcomes I won’t discuss here, after experiencing so much anger at our broken mental health system which is even worse now than it was then … I learned that Lisa had made it. In spite of everything, so many awful things, she made it.
As I learned back then, I had to try my best to let go of the losses and celebrate the wins. Well, today I can celebrate a big win. Even with all the people Lisa credits for helping her, she had to have a tremendous amount of inner strength to be where she is now. I couldn’t be prouder, and I couldn’t be more grateful. What a joy it is to be able to celebrate her!