Abigail leaned forward so she could reach behind her. Her eyebrows furrowed. She pinched her bra straps through a blouse that had seen better days and tugged at it. When that didn’t seem to work, she arched and bounced her back with a thud against my passenger seat. Still not satisfied, she then placed her hands underneath heavy, well-exposed cleavage and tried this time to rid herself of apparent discomfort by twisting first one side, then the next.
It seemed to work. She finally settled down. But the whole maneuver came across as a little too obvious by the time she asked, with an alluring smile, “So how you Mr. Davis?”
She’s only sixteen. But she’d been hustling on the streets for so long, flirting had become second nature. If you pretend not to notice and you’re not too good at pretending, what she did next would be intentional, and for a gentleman in my position, not in my best interest.
“Button your blouse, Abigail, You know better than this. How often do we have to play this game?” I asked. Not that I couldn’t get away with pretending. I’d been on the planet more than three times her age. Besides, I’d done it successfully many times with her before. It always threw her off-balance. Today I just wasn’t in the mood, and needed her to get serious for what I wanted to say to her.
“What game?” Again the smile, this time with two rapid flutters of her eyelashes. I sighed and decided to jump two steps ahead of her. I hadn’t seen Abigail in 3 months. She had dropped out of my school a year before, just before her 15th Birthday. The week before, I’d glimpsed her disappearing into a yard occupied by a group of guys who’d been in and out of jail.
But that wasn’t the problem. It was her life and she’d survived thus far. When you work with children from certain backgrounds, you get word about what’s happening on the streets whether you wanted to or not. This group was currently on the warpath, gathering weapons and preparing for the worst. I didn’t have time for chit-chat. I knew she’d jump out my car in 3 minutes when I passed her neighborhood.
“Abigail, the last time things got rough out here, you were almost caught in the middle and had to run. Do you remember how that felt?” I asked, hoping my best stern voice had just the right touch of concern.
“Mr. Davis, How can I get back in school?” Just like that. No bantering this time.
“Are you serious?” I asked. We’d been down this path twice already the previous year when she was still in school. But you have to treat each time with the same optimism as the first. My occupation has habits that had become second-nature too.
“You have no idea, Mr. Davis. Do you know what almost happened to me last night?” I could make a pretty good guess it was something dangerous that could cost her life. But we were getting close to her neighborhood already.
“Why do you think I picked you up, and asked you that question, Abigail? I do have an idea what your life is like. Your chances of getting back into regular school is almost zero. You can get an education and take control of your life in other ways. I can help you, but this time you have to prove to me you’re serious. You still have a computer at home with Internet access?”
“Yes. I’m on it almost every day.” She was immediately excited. All the street-smarts of a little girl who’d seen too much too soon disappeared, and the transformation shook my very core. That little flash of childlike wonder was still there even though I suspect she only let a few people see it. I forced myself to concentrate and managed to push back the sudden tears, glad we weren’t face to face. Yes, it’s sad, but getting emotional right now wasn’t going to help her. I stopped the car at her T-junction.
As she bounced out the car, I told her, “Send me an email before weekend, Abigail, then I’ll know you’re serious. You know better than I do that this is a matter of life and death.”
“Yes Mr. Davis” My clients always use my name like that with almost every sentence. Even the boys. Don’t ask me why. I’ve always gotten a little irritated when teachers insisted that their students address me formally. As a school social-worker, that creates unnecessary boundaries I’d rather not be there.
“Before weekend, Abby. That only leaves you twenty-four hours.”
She lowered her head to see me through the window on her side. “Yes Mr. Davis.” But Abby was already distracted. Rough fingers with discolored nails loosened her top buttons again as if I wasn’t even there. In half a second, she had turned and started sauntering up the hill. The image of a puma stalking a prey seared my brain for a second. Once again she seemed powerful, focused and in her element.
Game-face! The sixteen-year-old child disappeared before my very eyes in split seconds.
Why do people think all children like Abby necessarily have a low self-esteem? That old argument still haunted me. Too many folks confuse outlier values and self-concepts for low self-esteem That’s the first mistake setting up the Abigails of this world to fall through the cracks.
That was Thursday and weekend is here. Her real name isn’t Abigail of course. But she’s real, and she gives me nightmares. I don’t know if I can handle having to make excuses yet again for not attending a funeral. Communities in small-island states like St. Maarten don’t forgive you easily for that sort of thing.
Chances are high she’ll lose her life, her freedom, or her sanity before she’s twenty-five. Abigail isn’t your victim type. Despite her young age, I can assure you she’s the one in charge during those interactions out there when she’s hustling.
Or is she? She’s learned how to size people up, and whom not to approach. But when she eventually butts heads with someone she underestimated, I know she’ll fight like a devil possessed. She’ll either escape, kill someone, or be killed herself. Wasn’t too long ago that happened to another Abigail. It’s weird to see a Facebook profile of someone still on your list you used to work with every day but hadn’t even made it past her 25th birthday. Can you blame me for not being able to handle a funeral like that?
As for Abigail, the authorities have their reports. She’s in their system. But they don’t have the resources to help her. She’s managed not to be caught breaking the law. Parents? What parents? They’re both alive and that’s all I’m going to say about that.
My nightmares also come from knowing what she’d be capable of if the system weren’t failing her. Abigail isn’t just surviving out there because she’s street-smart. At the age of 13 she could negotiate cash out of grown adult strangers’ hands in minutes. You should see her poems. She writes beautifully, has mastered basic math easily, and creates solutions to difficult life-challenges in ways that would put many a grown-up to shame.
It takes massive motivation to put in the necessary work if you’re trying to generate a six-figure income. First, a dream you’re emotionally attached to is essential.
To go with words some millennials use, let’s call that dream your thing.
I still only have a sketch of the steps for Abigail to climb out of the hole she’s in. I suspect it’s never the same for any two people. For starters, she’ll need cleaning up, checked out medically, daily hot meals, a different socialization and strong, nurturing, round-the-clock supervision. Then the fun can kick in.
Abby’s thing could easily be sales… doing it and teaching it eventually. But she’s pretty good with languages too, and is so cool under pressure, I could also easily see her in a high-stress occupation like hostage negotiator or similar cloak & dagger stuff. If you know how to ask the right questions, you only need to be in close quarters with her for 10 minutes to see her talent.
I’d love to help take her, and others like her, through process of finding her thing, getting really good at it, then starting to teach it to others who’ve been called to the same work. That’s what I consider my own thing. But in a small developing island-state like St. Maarten you can’t live off a profession like that if your market was the island alone. I bet you can think of places on the map where she’d be in demand though.
The world would need her to offer her talents to a global audience. And she would need to do it for the world just as much. I believe every human has skills and experiences making them uniquely suited for giving unsurpassed value to someone else on the globe they don’t even know exist. Just 15 years ago, that would have been difficult, but not today. Doesn’t it boggle the mind? I mean all the power and the responsibility a tablet or smart-phone places at our fingertips?
Tomorrow I’m going to knock on Abigail’s grandmother’s door. What do you think that conversation will be like? Stay tuned. I may let you know next week. But in the meantime…
What’s your thing?
I work in a school catering to many so-called at-risk children. I interact with students, parents and teachers all week long. And I’ve been doing it a long time. We help many children get an education and become productive members of society.
It’s the others that bother me… the Abigails of this world. We know what they need, but we work in a system that routinely fails to help them get what they need. It almost feels like seeing a loved one blindfolded and slowly walking towards the edge of a cliff… but being gagged and hogtied yourself and not being able to do anything but watch it happen. It’s a fricking nightmare I’m sick and tired of having.
I see teachers like you go ten extra miles week after week. But the problem-children can simply take too much out of you, and if they’re not careful, you’ll get burned-out. Some teachers don’t even recognize burn-out when it happens. But after it does, since the system doesn’t change, you’re likely to pull back and try to settle for ONLY working with the students who come to school ready to work and learn. No it’s not correct. It’s self-preservation, and it’s an attempt to sacrifice a few for the benefit of the majority.
Still, turning a blind eye to the children who need you the most…that takes its toll too. After a while, those closest to you will tell you that light in your eyes has dimmed. I’ve seen it too many times myself. You’re only human. Just showing up for work every day in the proper frame-of-mind becomes a challenge.
Caregivers like myself were inserted in schools to support teachers. It helps, but the community institutions designed to support our work are themselves strapped for cash, understaffed, and often mismanaged. I won’t even touch the issue of one politician after the next micro-managing them or throwing things off-course for all the wrong reasons. They’ve become a major part of the problem themselves. I’ve discovered over the years this isn’t just a local problem either. Educators the world over face the same kinds of bottlenecks.
Then there’s the bureaucrats and major policy decision-makers. To be effective, they need unity, a huge vision and a close look at the reality of the lives of these children. They keep going to their meetings, discussing this and that, and comparing what we have in place to some other system somewhere else. Most of the time it’s in Europe or the U.S. where they got their education and saw what well-functioning institutions can do.
But that’s a problem in itself they’re not fully aware of. Those developed countries have had over a hundred years developing those institutions. Historically speaking, we in the Caribbean are where those countries were…maybe 70 years ago.
The analogy I have for those bureaucrats is the dude looking for his lost coin under a lamp-post because that’s where the light allows him to see, despite the fact that he knows he dropped the coin some distance away in the dark. Year after year, these folks keep trying to copy the same tired solutions from developed countries. When your “Innovations Bureau” can only show you programs they copied from elsewhere, based on research done elsewhere, you know you have a problem. The international benchmarks often seem obscure or even senseless in the local context. The culture doesn’t fit, and the supporting institutions, if they even exist, don’t function the same way. The resources are just NOT there.
So.. of course they don’t get good results, and default to blaming the youth, blaming the parents, and blaming teachers for the bedlam in our classrooms.
If you’re as fed up as I am, maybe you’ve reached the same conclusion I have. You may not be able to help all children at-risk. You might not even be able to help all in your school. But there just has to be ways to reach the ones that find themselves in your classroom.
I’m here to reassure you not only that you can. You’re also not alone. It’s time to empower ourselves for the cause. It’s time to get just a little radical and join us in true innovation. Make that your thing as well. Listen to me…the Abigails in your classroom hunger for life skills to engage their worlds, but have no way to get those skills either at home or in your school.
That means YOU are their only hope.
Be their shining light. I’m here to help. That’s my thing. But we must join hands around the globe and disrupt things enough to shake loose the resources to make it all happen. I’ve quite some ideas about that, and want both your input and feedback.
Welcome to TLS… Teach Life Skills. Quite simply, it’s an idea who’s time has come. You’re here now.
What to Expect, Starting in June
- Weekly Blog broadcasts: Highly valuable, in-depth articles or videos on teaching life skills to children and youth in general. First in the next few months, we focus especially on the most powerful help we have as educators.. the student’s family and parents. This is a renewed focus on parental involvement, a term we’ve now upgraded to call “family engagement.”
- Facebook Live Broadcasts
- In Early July: Launch of Family Engagement Coaching (FamEnCo) for teachers
- Late July TLS Podcast
- Regular surveys so I’m sure my content is in-tune with the most important concerns in your world as a teacher.
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