The silenced

Transitioning to work at a traditional public school has highlighted that I sustained a significant amount of trauma from my time working in a charter school.

I still have panic attacks.

I still have nightmares.

I still panic when I hear loud noises.

I still assume the worst when I’m addressed by administration, even though every interaction with administration in my new public school has been fair and professional, and I have no logical reason to feel threatened.

I’m realizing that I am a fundamentally different human being now than I was when I first made a deal with the school choice devil – which makes me wonder what it’s like for our kids – how their lives are different because they are attending a charter school. I wonder how their worldview has shifted. I wonder what they’ll tell their kids about what school was like for them. I wonder how many children will one day visit a therapist’s office, and speak of the horrible ways that they were treated in their “high-performing” charter schools.

I wonder at the trauma that charter schools inflict on our children.

One morning during silent breakfast, I noticed a student walking around the cafeteria, agitated. Flitting from table to table, stopping to talk to a select few students, hands balled up, brow furrowed. Anger.

I am ashamed to say that the first thing I thought when I saw this child roaming the cafeteria was, “What would administration say if they saw this?”

And so, as the student passed me, I muttered to him gently – “Please sit down.”

The student ignored me. And so, I let him complete another lap around the cafeteria.

As he passed me again, I said, a little more loudly this time, but still discreetly, “Stop. You need to sit down.”

The student ignored me.

And so, I let him complete another lap around the cafeteria, and as he passed me again, I reached out my arms and caught him in a hug. As if he hadn’t noticed me, he kept walking.

“Hey, hey, hey,” I pleaded, “Stop. You’re okay. I got you. What’s wrong?”

Instantaneously, I held a limp and sobbing fourth grader in my arms. Through his sobs, he told me the story of how his uncle had been murdered in a truly gruesome murder-suicide. He told me every detail – how it happened, why it happened, what his uncle’s body looked like, everything. I could picture exactly what happened.

Meanwhile, the other 70 children in the cafeteria at the time, had begun to chatter innocently. Hearing the forbidden sound of children speaking, upper level management entered the cafeteria.

“What’s going on in here?” they demanded, as I held a still-sobbing fourth grader, tears streaming down his face, snot dripping on the shoulder of my sweater.

“Uh… this student… something really bad happened… and I… uh…” I anxiously stammered, still picturing the murder that the student had described, trying to comfort the student, trying to mitigate the fear of being fired for being unable to maintain a perfectly silent breakfast.

Administration glowered at me, and gestured vaguely to the children eating breakfast. “They shouldn’t be talking.” 

With that, administration grabbed the fourth grader by the wrist and dragged him away to the office, wailing, leaving me – heart racing, legs shaking, nauseous – to quiet a cafeteria full of children who were gleefully whispering about the coming day.

I’m not sure what happened to that student after that, but I saw him later that day, silently trudging down a tape line with his class, dazed and withdrawn. Based on other conversations lead by Administration that I’ve overheard, I imagine the conversation held in the office that morning went something like this: 

“I understand that you’re upset right now, but you’re here to learn. What happens at home is not an excuse to not follow directions or ignore our rules. I don’t care what happened to your uncle, this is about your choices. Your mother brought you here so that you can grow your brain. Dry your face. Go to class. And if I see you in the office again today, I’m suspending you again.”

I wonder what that child learned that day. I imagine that it wasn’t math, and I imagine it wasn’t reading. I wonder how much more trauma was inflicted on that already traumatized child by Administration’s “no excuses” approach.

And I wonder what he would have learned had he attended a school with a licensed counselor, social worker, and a restorative approach to discipline and trauma. I wonder what he would have learned if he had been allowed to cry, if he had been hugged and empathized with. I wonder what he would have learned if his teacher or Administration had reached out to his family and offered condolences, food, or donations. I wonder what he would have learned if he had been allowed to talk to his peers about what he was feeling. I wonder what he would have learned if his teacher had been allowed to cry with him, rather than being expected to punish him for expressing his emotions.

I wonder how much more harm was done to that child that day in his silencing, and I wonder how much harm has been done, how much trauma has been inflicted to this silenced generation of children attending “high-performing” charter schools.

For in the eerie quiet of the halls of a charter school, one message rings loud and clear.

You are not worth more than your silence.

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