Because of my own mental health struggles in adolescence, I have always been a passionate supporter of programs serving early teen students. In fact, one of the most important life lessons I learned over five decades of working in academia is that, despite their diversity in terms of ethnicity, religion or class, teenage kids tend to struggle with similar issues – the need for acceptance, the desire for respect and an insatiable curiosity about the world and all that’s in it.
A Teenager with Adult Responsibilities
As a junior high school teacher in Topeka, Kansas, I worked with a student population representative of a rainbow of cultures. One 15-year-old student, named Felicia (not her real name), arrived late to school twice during the first nine weeks. School policy dictated that I send her to the office. I knew that upon receiving her third tardy slip, she’d be required to stay after school. When I asked her why she was late, her only reply was an insolent, defiant shrug. So, instead of sending her to the office, my curiosity got the best of me and I asked her to get her lunch tray and bring it to my classroom.
As we sat down to eat and began to talk, I explained to her, once again, the seriousness of her offense. At first, she remained defensive, withdrawn and sullen, but finally she broke down with a tearful, angry rejoinder, “I have a baby. My mom can’t get the baby to the sitter before school, so it’s up to me to bathe and dress him and get him there before walking to school. I just can’t get here on time even if I want to. My baby comes first.”
My heart dropped to my stomach. How did this 15-year-old have the strength, the determination and the stamina to get herself to school under these circumstances? My better angels took charge and I immediately decided to work something out.
“If you’ll come in for lunch every day to make up the time you miss in the morning, we’ll eat together and I’ll catch you up on what you missed. In return, I expect you to turn in all your work and do your best. Do we have an agreement?” I asked. She nodded, “yes.”
Over time, I came to admire Felicia’s strength of character, and could see she was smart enough to learn the lessons she had missed. Despite daunting obstacles, she was doing her best to juggle all of life’s responsibilities even at her tender years. After several weeks of lunches together, she began smiling routinely. When she finally graduated, she stopped by my room to say goodbye.
I told her how proud I was of her and how convinced I was she and her baby would do well. She thanked me profusely, so pleased to go on to high school. I reflected to myself as she walked away, “If only you knew what a gift you’ve been by allowing me to give you a second chance.”
Drop out of School After Eighth Grade or Graduate from High School?
Later in my career, in Highland Park, Illinois, I served as the school’s Director of Instruction and Program Evaluation. I took vacation days so I could work with teachers at a nearby Indiana middle school serving a large Amish community. My assignment was to help the principal and staff create an advisory base to encourage positive interactions between students—a place of belonging and “home” while they were at school.
Our goal was to encourage Amish students to stay in school through high school rather than dropping out after their eighth- grade year, which was the norm.
Around that time, the U.S. Supreme court had ruled that Amish children could not be required to attend school after eighth grade. Parents’ fundamental right to freedom of religion could not be infringed upon.
Unlike the stereotypical high school dropout, Amish children were able to embrace a rich vocational education at home and, in many cases, a thriving work community after leaving public schools. However, as dedicated school educators, we all wanted these children to have the benefit of a formal high school education.
In retrospect, and with years of hindsight, I think perhaps the most important benefit the Amish children received by attending the public school was the friendships and mutual respect they established with their non-Amish classmates during those formative years.
For me, one of the most poignant memories of that period was the night we hosted a parent meeting for the middle school children and their families. My role was to explain the activities and purpose of the advisory-base, or homeroom. As parents began filing into the room, my attention focused on the back of the room, as several Amish men sporting traditional full beards, black vests or jackets and white shirts silently entered the room and sat down in the back row.
As other parents arrived, the group nodded respectfully to the special guests in the back and I wondered if it was unusual for these parents to attend or if everyone’s friendly nods were the typical recognition between parents of these distinct communities.
That meeting was one of the highlights of my career. All of the parents asked pointed and smart questions. There was no doubt in my mind that every parent in the room was equally passionate about his or her child and interested in learning about the school’s intent and purpose. I was thrilled when, at the conclusion of the evening, those Amish men came up to politely thank me for the presentation.
What did Felicia and the Amish children in this small Indiana town share in common? Felicia wanted to be a good parent. For her that meant finishing school and taking care of her baby. Her motherhood at such an early age made her different from most students her age.
The families of those children in Indiana also wanted the best for their children. Both Felicia and the Amish children were the outliers in their respective schools. In each case, however, it was our duty as educators to model to the community that each child under our care was equally important in our eyes, and that, by working together, we could advance a community built on our common human desire to learn and advance as productive citizens.
Reflect on your own teenage struggles and how you overcame them. What have been the lessons you applied in your life as an adult?