As I continue to watch coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and ponder the long-term effects this life-changing event will have on the affected children, I am reminded of the many students I have worked with over the years. During my long career as a teacher, a school administrator and a university professor, I came across literally thousands of students from a broad swath of backgrounds and national origins, many of whom struggled with emotional issues induced by trauma.
What I learned is that each child has his or her own unique way of coping with adversity. Many students had encountered overwhelming obstacles and sometimes personal trauma along their path to my school’s door. What stood out, however wasn’t their sadness or grief, but the amazing resilience they often displayed. In the face of daunting circumstances that would force even the strongest person to throw their hands up in despair, these children adapted over time, and often even thrived. They learned the language, adapted to an alien culture and came to internalize the expectations of a new school in a new country.
One fall, when I was a middle school principal in Topeka, Kansas, veral refugee children enrolled at our school. Early in the school year, one of the new students, a Vietnamese girl named Phoung (not her real name) showed up at school sobbing inconsolably. She had recently arrived to America via an overcrowded boat of refugees, and still spoke virtually no English. As we tried unsuccessfully to comfort her, I quickly contacted the young Vietnamese college student at our local university, whom we had engaged to tutor Phoung and teach her some of the customs in our country.
As soon as he arrived and began consoling her in her native language, her sobbing began to subside. Through her tears, she recounted her story about how her grandmother had pushed her onto a boat bound for America, saying that she’d join her as soon as she could. Of course, this was never the plan. Money was scarce and the girl’s grandmother was elderly.
Phoung had been led to believe that her grandmother was joining her on the journey, but at the last minute, she realized she would go alone believing that her grandmother would join her in America.
We also learned that the local family she was living with wasn’t related to her, but other refugees she’d come over on the boat with and who’d taken her in. Her devastation that morning had come from learning the hard truth via the Vietnamese grapevine, that her beloved grandmother had died.
Her loss drew me to her. Soon, she, along with two of her classmates, began joining me for lunch. It wasn’t long before this shy, heartbroken young girl began to gain confidence and tried to carry on a basic conversation in English with us. She giggled at my feeble attempts to say words in Vietnamese as did the other two girls. Overtime, a small miracle began unfolding before our eyes. After a few of those lunches, I could see her confidence grow – she began to walk and sit a little straighter. She looked us in the eye when she smiled and would greet us in the hallway.
The last Christmas Phoung was at my school, she presented me with a Vietnamese Christmas ornament she had made for me. She had dropped by my office two or three times the morning she gave it to me. I knew because my secretary reminded me two or three times Phoung needed to see me. The entire school reached out to Phoung. We finally connected at lunch time. We decided to have lunch in my office and I’ll never forget her excitement. I knew something good had happened. When Phoung presented me with a handmade Christmas gift, I’m not sure who was the proudest, Phoung or me. Phoung’s ornament has always stood as a priceless reminder of the strength of the human spirit to prevail. I think of her often, and am sure the lessons she learned during those difficult childhood experiences have served her well throughout her life. She’ll always remain in my heart and my memory.
Another young woman whose resiliency still stands out to me is Andreea (not her real name), a 15-year-old Romanian girl who was assigned to our middle school. She had come to Topeka through a program where her family was sponsored by a local church. She lived in a two-room house with her parents and eight siblings. At school, she would act out compulsively, sometimes drawing crass pictures that elicited giggles. We soon realized that Andreea’s inappropriate behavior was her effort to interact and make friends. One morning, when Andreea had a pre-scheduled appointment, advisory group teachers discussed how difficult it would be if we were assigned to a new school, in a new country, not knowing the language or the customs. Teachers reminded their students that we were all one community and it would be great if we modeled appropriate school behavior. Our students rallied on Andreea’s behalf, almost as if they had a new mission to help her.
The next challenge was to find professional help for Andreea, to assist us in helping her cope with her new surroundings in appropriate ways and to ensure she had the opportunity to thrive in our school. I made several attempts to secure special needs staffing to support her. However, because she didn’t speak English, it was impossible to find a psychologist who could administer an assessment in her language, which was the legal requirement. to be able to get her the support she so clearly needed.
Ultimately, I negotiated an arrangement with the special needs administrators in our district office to ensure Andreea received the help she so desperately needed. We found an art therapist to work with her. These art therapy sessions enabled her to use her talent to express the homesickness she felt for Romania and her anger about her family’s suffering.
Over time, her behavior began to improve. We learned she was a talented artistic. We also learned that, in addition to being an accomplished artist, she was a fantastic, passionate baker.
When she turned 16, she was offered a summer job as a baker at the Menninger Clinic, where she was able to earn her own money for the first time in a way that she loved. She encountered a newfound status in her family and a renewed sense of hope. Andreea continued to work, attended school and graduated from high school.
These two stories illustrate for me the bravery and resilience that young people can demonstrate after experiencing trauma. I know that the Texas children affected by Hurricane Harvey are just as strong, and I’m sure that, given support they will need from people who care, they, too, will be able to overcome the devastating emotional toll of being uprooted from home, possessions and, in some cases, family.
I encourage those of you reading these words to capture your own stories about dealing with the adversity that life hands us all and to learn and apply the lessons that make us stronger, more resilient individuals. Write them down. You’ll be glad you did.