Imagine you’re in elementary school. You take fraying textbooks out of a locker that won’t lock; it’s been broken since before the kids in your class can remember because no one has the time or money to fix it. You walk into a classroom with no window, dimly lit by dusty, dying light bulbs.
You and your classmates take your seats. There’s no one at the head of the classroom. You wait on bated breath. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes go by, and you realize you don’t have a teacher today.
Maybe you take out your books and read anyway, hoping you’re still following the lesson. Maybe you meander the halls to see if another classroom will take you today. Maybe you just go home.
You find out the next day that your teacher left to teach at another school. You wonder if they followed all those white kids who moved to the school that’s farther away but is said to have cleaner classrooms and newer books.
Your new teacher is a lot older. They don’t know what’s in these textbooks so you spend some time catching them up on the material. Sometimes they just talk about what they used to teach a long time ago, before you were even in kindergarten.
Eventually you get another new teacher. This one is younger. They seem surprised that there are only a few white kids in your classroom. When the kid next to you throws a paper wad at one of the kids in front, the teacher looks at them but doesn’t do or say anything.
You have a hard time listening because you’re tired; the babies cried half the night, and even though he tried to be quiet, dad still woke you up when he came back from work around two in the morning. At one point you fall asleep in class. Your new teacher wakes you and up scolds you in front of everyone. When you get home your mom is on the phone with the teacher. You hear your mom try to explain that she’s not a bad parent, she’s just having a hard time keeping things together right now. You remember her telling you how she’d dropped out of high school after she kept being suspended for being “disruptive.” Even though the white kids could have been doing exactly the same thing. She was always the one who got called out for it. Just like you.
You go to the table to start doing the math homework your new teacher gave you. You’re not sure really what it is, because you haven’t done this kind of math in your class yet. You chew your pencil and you wonder if you’re going to be like your mom. If school keeps being like this, maybe it would be better if you just stayed home and helped take care of the family.
This May I started working at a child care center coordinating their community youth programs. Among other things, I have a classroom of 14 first and second graders I work with every day after school.
My center enrolls about 40 kids in its after-school program. They’re split into 3 classrooms, and I run one of them. It was a pretty proud moment for me when my supervisor told me I’d have my own classroom. Not only did this affirm that I’m lead teacher material, it gave me an opportunity I’d been waiting for since I decided to become an educator.
I got to decorate my own classroom.
The room I was given hadn’t been used for much in a while. One of the other teachers had spent time over the summer reorganizing it, but I got to take it over from there. I had shelves, a rug, a couch, some tables, pictures, whiteboards, and a fake tree to work with.
My childcare center follows a particular philosophy of learning—the Reggio Emilia approach. The Reggio Emilia philosophy follows the belief that children aren’t empty sponges waiting for us to fill them—a popular belief in many settings—but that they’re sponges already full of knowledge, curiosity, and potential, and it’s out job as educators to coax that out and guide it.
Rather than teaching them curriculums and integrating structured learning, we set up an environment that’s natural for exploration and self-lead learning. We give them invitations—setting out materials that they can work with if they want; and provocations—laying out a challenge or asking a question that they can attempt to meet or answer.
The approach was developed in the 1970s, as educators in post-World War II Italy looked for new ways to teach their students. It is geared towards younger kids, which is a large portion of what our center focuses on. But we serve a good number of school-age youth as well, and Reggio methods are adapted in age-appropriate ways for the after-school program.
Loose parts are a huge part of Reggio. Loose parts can be almost anything—acorns, beads, pine cones, sticks, leaves, beans, pebbles, string, corks, rings, pop tabs, rocks. These items are traditionally arranged in baskets and laid out on tables or shelves. That’s part of the invitation. They’re always there, and the students are welcome to use and explore them. But there’s no pressure to do so, or to do so with a specific goal in mind. That way, discoveries occur naturally, and it’s a lot more satisfying and exciting for the student. I watch my kids every day as they take out the baskets, sort pieces, mix and match, build, create, and observe. They get so much more out of it than if I’d handed them a bunch of rocks and said “Build a tower!” or beads and said “Make a pattern!”
Blocks are also very versatile. My class has traditional wooden blocks, “natural” looking blocks, wooden train tracks, cut-up sponges, and cups. LOTS of cups. I gave them cups on a whim, looking to fill one of the empty compartments on my block shelf, and they ran with it. Almost every day now, I have multiple students building cup towers, making cup walls, sorting the cups based on size and color, and all sorts of things.
It’s so much more exciting than pre-designed Lego sets or puzzles.
The best things happen when the areas overlap. I’ve seen many glorious palaces built with a mixture of loose parts and blocks.
The classroom layout and environment is also very important. According to Reggio, education consists of three teachers. First, the child; they lead themselves through life and are constantly showing us new things. Second, the traditional educator role: the responsible, trained adult in the room who can ensure safety and guide learning. And third, the classroom itself. Everything about the learning area influences the experiences had inside it.
I spent a lot of time arranging my classroom until it satisfied my needs. I wanted lots of options for play, but not so many they were overwhelming. I filled the shelves with items that got swapped out occasionally with others in the closet. I wanted the classroom to be open, to invite collaborative play and to let the students decide what the spaces would consist of. Wide open floor spaces make for awesome buildings. Putting the art table next to the “creation station” with no barrier left plenty of room for crossing over materials.
I wanted the room to have a natural feel. The art table went by the window to let the outside world and natural lighting inspire their work. The book nook went in a quiet corner, which I equipped with the couch, the rug, the tree, soft pillows and bean bags, a fish tank, and of course bookshelves. The book nook was closed off on one side but not all, so there could be some separation if quiet was needed, but it was not totally isolated, allowing for some versatility there as well.
I wanted the room to be inviting. The first few weeks the students were there, I lay out the invitation for the kids to make art to hang on the walls. I wanted them to feel like the room belonged to them—it wasn’t someone else’s room that they borrowed for a few hours each afternoon.
The walls were soon bedecked with their art: their hand prints, color patterns, abstract shapes, items of interest. The invitation is ongoing, and I still have some of them coming up to me with art asking if it can be put on the walls.
I’ve worked in programs before where we followed a specific schedule and lead curriculums. Those experiences were very rewarding, and I could see the benefits they had on the children I worked with in those settings. It was a huge change for me to arrive at a place where the emphasis was not on what I would be teaching the kids every day, but on what we could all learn together as a community.
I love watching my kids explore the materials laid out for them. I love seeing the amazing things they come up with in exploration and pretend play. I love being able to interact with them on a new level as I explore with them, sometimes sitting back and watching as they guide themselves through the day.
I do have one big thing in my classroom that is not Reggio: the job wheel. Though we don’t follow a specific agenda, each day brings a series of steps we need to follow. We walk from school, eat our snack, and clean up. During the first days, the kids fought over who would walk in front, and it often ended in tears. Some of them didn’t care, but for those that did, it was a pretty big deal.
The one it really mattered to had ADHD. That might have been the cause of the frustration, or it might have just exacerbated it. He would push and yell at others when they tried to walk in front, but didn’t seem to think it was unfair for him to walk in the front every single day. (For ease of reading, I’ll call him A.)
I’d tell him, “You can’t walk in front today, let someone else do it,” and be met with an indignant “Why?”
“Because it’s not fair.”
So, among other things, Line Leader became a job that switched every day. The first day I introduced the job wheel, when A pushed his way to the front, I said, “A, you’re not in the front today.”
I was met with his pout. “Why?”
“Because Line Leader is a job now, and today, it’s B’s job.”
“Oh. Okay.” And A walked to the back of the line.
It felt like a miracle.
The job wheel helps me so I don’t have to hand out plates and wipe the tables every day. But it’s also very important to A now, as well as the others in my class who have ADHD and other needs. For that reason, I’m not getting rid of it, even if it’s not Reggio.
I love my classroom. It’s a place where I can witness creativity, teamwork, struggles, resolutions, tears, laughter, growth, and learning every day. During my interview, my future supervisor could see me bouncing with excitement when she described the Reggio Emilia approach. I’d been trying to explain to people for years that kids come into this world equipped with everything they need, and in most cases, adults don’t build them up, we squish it all back down by convincing them they don’t know anything. If we’re teaching them stuff they already know, how is that going to make them feel? Bad? Wrong? Inadequate?
There are things like the alphabet and how to hold scissors that have to be taught. But a sense of curiosity, wonder, excitement, a love of nature, the drive to learn, a feeling of community, caring for others—that’s part of the package they walk into our lives with. Reggio Emilia takes for granted that all of that is there. It’s not our job to invent our students. It’s our job to meet them where they already are, and give them the chance to invent themselves.
Find out more about the Reggio Emilia apprach here:
It feels like every summer has a life and a story of its own. The past three have been the most emotional and life-changing of all my summers so far. Mostly, it’s been the camps that make it so.
Before I continue, I want to clarify for some readers who might not have experiences with summer camps. I talk about my camps a lot–some people in my life say too much. But anyone who’s been a part of a summer camp knows–there’s something about them. The closeness. The intensity. The season. The rigor. The relationships built fast and left too soon. The 16-hour days getting up early and staying up late. Getting down and dirty. If you’ve not experienced that, it’s understandable that you won’t feel the level of emotion that goes into my stories about camp. But if you have been a part of a camp, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
There’s a piece of me that will always be stuck with the first summer camp I worked for. It’s a stubborn piece. Some days I want to be selfish and let it go. Some days I wish I could walk away without feeling guilty and broken. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.
I made some amazing friends at this camp, both with the other counselors and with the kids. I was barely 19, working with high schoolers in my first youth-oriented job. What had even possessed me to apply, and to interview passionately enough to be selected? I credit the South Dakota trip as the catalyst for my desire to work with youth. Setting out on the trip, I was terrified of meeting the kids and convinced that I would fuck up their lives in the three days we were there. I wouldn’t know what to say or do with them or how to interact. Going there and meeting kids from a place and culture I had little contact with shook me. Hearing the stories of the suicide epidemic was what pushed me into the place of wanting to combat youth suicide, which soon turned into a desire to work with kids in any way I could. My experiences from the trip were a huge motivator for me when I interviewed for the job and started working there.
But I forget that I applied for the job before the trip.
I can’t remember applying for the job, writing my application, finding references, sending it in, agonizing over it. I remember doing that for the resident assistant position at school; not for this summer camp. I remember getting the email from my supervisor suggesting the job to me and a few others. I can’t remember what interested me about the job, since I was still pretty afraid of kids. Maybe it was the fact that they would be high schoolers. Maybe it was because it was similar enough to my current position that I felt it would be easy enough to transition to. Maybe it was because I had friends who were applying. Though I wonder about it, I don’t think my abuser had anything to do with it—we were dating at the time; she had no interest in the job at all, so I doubt she convinced me. Maybe it was just because I wanted anything but to go back to my parents’ house that summer and was looking for any way to stay on campus.
At any rate, I got the job.
I felt like I sucked at it. The kids still scared me; I wasn’t always sure what to say or do. But I went through the training, learned a lot, and enjoyed it; I was making friends; I was connecting with my supervisors. By the time camp rolled around, I was excited to meet the kids. I acted as a TA for the first group, the middle schoolers. I learned the names of all the kids in my class and things about them. I made solid connections with several of them, and we talked outside of class. I didn’t have to, but I joined them each day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I cried when they left.
The next six weeks I worked as a dorm counselor for the high school campers. I was going through a lot at the time. My abuser broke up with me, but we made the dangerous decision to remain friends. She was running hot and cold with me, sometimes wanting to be my best friend and sometimes ignoring me completely. My family was becoming hostile towards me, offended by my decision to further my education and experience by staying away from home. Thanks to counseling, I was beginning to recognize my depression and anxiety for what it was and put a label on my panic attacks, which was both freeing and terrifying. My self-harm episodes became more frequent and more alarming. During the first week, the head counselor noticed the scars on my arm. She took me aside and I broke down, telling her how much I felt I was struggling, how I felt I was no good at the job and close to quitting. She calmly talked me down, told me I was doing fine, and gave me ways I could be supported.
I kept trying. I made friends with many of the kids and learned all their names, though not as quickly as I wanted. As would become the tradition, the queer kids gravitated towards me. I was teaching a class called Images of Gender and I hit the cap of 24 students. I spent time with the kids even on my days off, having nothing better to do. I enjoyed being with them, though again I didn’t always know what to do or say and sometimes backed off to let the more experienced counselors handle things.
I didn’t agree with their disciplinary methods—making the kids do pushups or having them go on all fours saying “beep, beep, I’m a jeep.” I thought there were better ways to handle behavioral concerns. I felt that having them do those things would humiliate them, and I didn’t like that. If I witnessed a camper breaking rules, I told them not to and explained that what they were doing went against camp policies. If they asked why, I’d say that they were at our camp and needed to follow the expectations of camp while they were here, even if what they were doing was something they would do at home. If I heard one of them swear, I would say “I’m pretty sure you didn’t just say something you shouldn’t say, because I know that you know the rules. So I know I’m not going to hear you say words like that. Right?” It amused them. I never had a case of a camper continuing to swear after I spoke out.
The only time I yelled was when I saw them throwing bananas around the room. I was angry; I hate seeing food wasted. I tried to address the problem by talking to the individuals throwing the bananas, but when they didn’t listen, I stood in the middle of the room and yelled at them to stop. Seeing me—the tiny, timid counselor—screaming at them made them all immediately freeze. Because I never yelled or told them to do pushups, they took me very seriously in that moment.
Many of the kids liked me. Some saw me as their enemy, but I knew that I wasn’t going to please everybody, and each kid was going to have their least favorite counselors. There were some days I simply had to hide. There were some days I took my fears and frustrations out on my fellow counselors. There were some days I was not as engaged as I should have been. I knew this was not okay; I knew I had to work on bettering myself.
I thought I was allowed a few days to be weak; I thought everyone was.
The summer came to a close and the school year began. When I ran into my supervisors, we’d talk excitedly about next summer. I asked several times how I could continue to be involved, attending some of their fall and spring events and keeping in touch with my campers on social media. I asked my supervisors how I would apply for the following summer. I was told I didn’t need to, but that I would be sent an email gauging my interest in returning, and all I had to do was say yes. I knew I was going to; as difficult as it had been, I loved that job. I loved my kids. They cried when they said goodbye to me. I knew I’d made an impact, and a positive one.
I didn’t receive the email, even as the school year came to a close, even as my friends who applied started hearing back. One day I ducked into one of my supervisor’s office, explaining that I had one day over the summer I’d need off and that I hoped it wouldn’t cause a conflict with move in days.
She looked uncomfortable and said, “Oh, this is hard.”
“What?” I asked.
“Well, we’re not hiring you back this summer.”
I couldn’t speak. I could only stare. I felt like piece of me were falling to the floor. I thought of all the kids I’d connected with. The things some of them had said to me, about how I’d helped them, how important I was to them. I thought of every mistake I’d made that summer, of the negative feedback I’d received.
“I hope you’re not mad,” she said.
“I’m not.” I wasn’t. Not yet. “I’m…sad.”
This was worse than a breakup, ironic because later that afternoon my then-girlfriend broke up with me. This was worse than if my supervisor had told me at the end of last summer that I wasn’t coming back. They’d been telling me all year I could. What had I done to change their minds?
I agonized over it for months. When summer rolled around I cried when I thought of what they would be doing without me. I did everything I could to stay in their lives, working three hours a week as an elective teacher and volunteering for field trips. The ones who remembered me greeted me with excitement and love. I made new friends as well, once again attracting and mentoring the queer kids. My supervisors continued to interact positively. They even let me take three of the kids to my on-campus apartment to visit my cat. They trusted me completely. So why hadn’t they taken me back as a counselor?
I attended the end-of-year banquets, crying and watching them cry as they left, tucking away my favorite memories and chalking them up to a summer well lived. Wondering what I had done wrong, why they had rejected me, why it had to be like this. Wondering what I would do next year.
I wasn’t a teacher this summer. My new job schedule conflicted with class times. I’d had so many experiences since that first camp that I went everywhere confident in my abilities to mentor, build connections, lead, love, and succeed. I knew what that first camp had let walk away. They could have kept me on and I would have done better. They could have been straight up with me and told me off the bat I wasn’t coming back, because apparently they’d known all along even as they told me I could.
The only thing I did that summer was sleep over in the dorms so they could maintain the required student-adult ratio, and attend one field trip.
I could barely handle it. I couldn’t stand arriving on campus after most of them had gone to sleep, but at the same time I couldn’t bear the thought of arriving early to spend time with them. I was angry I could only attend one field trip but did nothing to fight for more.
I fostered my existing connections and built new ones. Still, it wasn’t enough. I felt myself slipping from their lives. I became less important. They stopped needing me.
I realized I could not return for another summer without breaking even more inside.
This time when I left, I didn’t say goodbye.
Last Friday was the first day of the year where it felt like fall. I saw brown leaves on the ground and whistling down the street on my way to work. I wore layers for the first time since winter. The air was not just chilly; it was the autumn kind of chilly, the kind that holds promises for more tantalizing days, for harvests, for darkened evenings and blustery afternoons.
I walk into stores and I see back to school banners and notebooks for seventeen cents. Along with the mellow hues of the season come the bright block colors of new pencils, crayons, and paper. Along with the chill of the air comes the thrill of going back to familiar classrooms or starting the same routine somewhere new.
I’ve been trying to stay off social media, but when I do check for work purposes, I see posts from my friends excitedly preparing for their second, third, and final years at college, or gearing themselves up for grad school.
This is the first year in four that I am not joining them. It wasn’t going to be originally, but it’s how it ended up playing out.
Applying for and being accepted into Alverno’s Master’s Program in Counseling and Community Psychology has been one of my proudest accomplishments. I walked through so many months with that happy success under my belt, excited that I had concrete plans to share with anyone who asked me what I would be doing after graduation.
I’d always worried about the transportation piece. I still don’t have my driver’s license; though even if I did, the idea of the three-hour drive through highways and city streets terrifies me. Taking the Greyhound wouldn’t be the end of the world, especially if it’s to further my education in a field I was really excited about. At that time, I wanted my counseling license as soon as possible; I was sure I wouldn’t be able to get an impactful enough job without it.
I was determined not to move to Milwaukee, either, though many of my friends and advisors suggested that I do. I didn’t want to leave behind the many connections I’d worked hard for in my city. I didn’t want to leave my current job—if there was even a chance of my ability to return.
Besides, I didn’t have the resources to make such a dramatic move. I had nowhere to live there, and no knowledge of the safest places to live there. I didn’t have the money it would take to make the move.
So I waited knowing something was going to work out—I just had to figure out what.
Three weeks after graduation—three weeks of being homeless, living out of my car, and couch surfing—I got my current job. Originally I’d applied to the place as a part-time daycare teacher, just looking for anything to get me through the summer. But once I submitted my application and resume, I received a reply just a few hours later, asking me to apply for a different position: Youth Program Coordinator.
When I read the job description I was elated and apprehensive. It seemed too difficult for my current capabilities. I wasn’t sure I was up to that much commitment, that much work. Was I qualified? Should I even bother? It would be my first full-time job, my first professional position.
But the title—“youth program coordinator”—spoke to me. The descriptions of the position working with youth and families and developing programming for them excited me on a level I hadn’t felt before. This could be a bridge into exactly what I wanted to do.
I applied and was invited for a phone interview. At the end of the call we scheduled a face-to-face interview for the following week. At that interview, I talked with the childcare supervisor, CEO, and CFO. I was intimidated; and yet they were all so friendly, inviting, and encouraging. They saw my foot bouncing with excitement, they saw my eager smiles as they described what I would do. I saw their looks of satisfaction when I described my experiences and passion.
They said they’d been looking to fill the position for a few months, and had hoped to have it filled by now. But they were waiting for the right person.
The next day I received an email inviting me to fill the position.
I was the right person.
All summer I worked on programming, connections, fundraising, relationship building, planning, organizing, and assisting with anything in my realm. It’s the most intensive and exciting job I’ve ever had. I feel more confident and at home than I have in years, except maybe for my position in the after-school program.
All of my experiences cumulate into this position. I’m reminded daily how good I am at what I do, and my supervisor has mentioned more than once how happy they were that they’d waited for me.
“You’re the one for this job,” she tells me. “This is you.”
I didn’t really think about Alverno until August had already begun. I’d applied before my legal name change; I realized I had yet to change my name in the system.
I realized that Milwaukee was more of a commute than I was prepared for.
I realized that counseling wasn’t what I needed right now.
I formally withdrew from Alverno the day before Orientation. Numerous phone calls after numerous days putting them off lead to two unanswered voicemails from my advisor and, finally, a request to receive the withdrawal in writing. It took me longer than it should have to send the email because I was full of regret. But when I got the reminder on my phone because I forgot to delete it, I felt some relief that I didn’t have to drive hours this morning or take the greyhound all Friday afternoon to get there. Besides, I wouldn’t miss the last day of camp for anything.
Earlier that month my supervisor had pointed me in the direction of UW-Milwaukee’s online Master’s Program in Community Engagement and Education. I applied experimentally and was accepted two weeks before classes started. I was excited; it was even closer to what I wanted to do, and I wouldn’t have to make the terrifying drive or sacrifice every other Friday afternoon to bus rides.
A few days later I received a call from the residency office telling me I was not an established Wisconsin resident and didn’t qualify for in-state tuition. I had to establish residency first. Despite having been a Wisconsin resident almost all of my life; despite having parents who had been Wisconsin residents for decades; despite receiving a degree at a public University in Wisconsin; despite having a valid Wisconsin state ID; despite owning a car registered in Wisconsin; despite having filed Wisconsin income taxes for the past three years.
“So, which state do I have residency in instead?” was the question I wanted to spit out, but never asked out loud.
I called them back and they told me the only way to prove my Wisconsin residency was to get tax documentation from my parents.
My gut dropped when I thought of the months-long tax battle I’d only recently gotten over. I told the caller that this was not an option for me. That they had basically disowned any commitment to me.
“But look at it this way,” he said. “You’re getting an education to better yourself. I’m sure they’ll want to help you do that.”
I thought of my dad’s furious reactions when I said how much I liked college and how much I was learning; his bitter conversations with my mother on how horrible this college experience was for the family. I thought of his sharp email asking me where I was going to get money for the Study Abroad trip I wanted to take. Their refusal to grant me even grocery money. Withholding vital documents and information I needed.
No, sir, they do not want me to succeed.
“They have proven to me several times that they will not do anything to help me,” I said as calmly as I could.
He relented and told me I could appeal. I groaned inwardly at the amount of work I’d have to do and hoops I’d have to jump through to in order to file the appeal. It was a week before classes started, and there was no guarantee my appeal would go through.
My only other option was to sustain myself financially for a year without attending school. It was stupid, but the easiest and most feasible option.
I contacted the registrar, and they delayed my enrollment until the fall of next year. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was the same day I sent in my official withdrawal from Alverno.
At the same time, I sigh at the bittersweet knowledge I will not be returning to the familiar classrooms, not joining my friends in the exhilarating scramble for fresh school supplies. But then I see my kids at work preparing themselves for the upcoming quarter, and feel the same excitement I felt at the end of last summer. I look at my plans for my programs in the public schools and feel the same shivers in my chest.
The thrill of gathering notebooks and binders for myself can wait.
Now I’m preparing myself to set out on a new adventure, where my learning doesn’t come from books and papers; where I’m the one writing the curriculums and presenting them to classrooms. I’ve been an educator and even a teacher before. But this is the first time it’s my full-time job, and this is the first time that the programs I’m a part of are my own.
The same day I withdrew form one school and confirmed the date of my enrollment for another was the last day of camp. I said goody-bye to some of my campers. For those who are returning for our school-year programs, I tease them with hints at what I have planned for them. I can’t wait to get them involved in the projects and activities I have in store. All my preparation over the past few months has been leading me towards those moments.
It’s been a great summer, and it’s going to be a great fall.
(The names of the individuals in this post have been changed to protect their identity)
Consent is a very important and very tricky concept to build for a child.
In a society where rape culture is sickeningly prevalent, I’m relieved to see more of the parents I work with practicing consent with their child.
“Did you ask before you took it?”
“If they said ‘no,’ you have to listen.”
I work with kids and parents on a daily basis, and have for the past year. While at college, I studied and took trainings on sexual assault and consent. I learned that concepts like the importance of “no” and asking permission can and should be introduced at a very early age. I started looking at my interactions with my kids in terms of consent.
Almost every interaction I have with my kids is flavored by something I have learned. I make hundreds of choices every day, at each turn. I try to make the best choices based off of what I know.
I’ve been trying to teach consent with my kids in all the various groups I work with. Some of them love giving hugs. I love getting hugs. But I try to remember to say, each time, “Thank you for the hug! Let’s make sure we always ask before we touch, though.”
When one kid is getting unwanted attention, I remind the other, “Make sure we ask before we touch.”
If one kid is playing with something, or has a personal item with them, I remind the other kids if they try to play with it–“That’s not yours; make sure you ask before you touch it.”
I bring up the reminder every chance I get. Many of the kids I work with are young, so it takes consistent reminders before things start to sink in. It’s become part of my daily vocabulary, something that slips out as easily and naturally as “Thank you for listening,” “Make sure our voices are quiet,” “Please use kind words,” and “Thank you for helping me.”
I believe that the more they hear it, the more natural it will seem to them too–so that at some point, I won’t have to be around for them to remember that I say it, and hopefully that reminder is what helps them make a safe, kind choice later down the line.
I see almost every moment as a learning moment and every interaction as an opportunity. After years of working with a variety of youth in a variety of settings and capacities, I’ve gotten to a place where I feel confident navigating most situations, even if I’m jumping from one group to another within the week. I’ve learned that the way I say things has an enormous impact on how the day goes, and that it’s often the kids themselves who drive the most important twists and turns of the day. And sometimes small things will reveal big issues.
In one of my youth groups, it happened over Legos. Five kids sat at a table, each with their respective pile of Legos. Some of the piles were bigger than others–some of the kids had been playing for longer.
One of the kids was trying to get a Lego piece from another. I didn’t see the interaction, the cause and effect; I was looking at something else, and when I turned around, all I saw was Alan lifting his arm about his head to keep a piece away from Sam, and heard Alan yelling “Stop it already!”
“Sam keeps trying to take my piece!” Alan called to me.
I approached calmly and asked Sam the question I always did in this instance: “Did you ask if you could touch it?”
It was twofold; it’s not good to touch something someone else has if they said no. But its also important to share–none of the Legos belonged to the kids; they all belonged to the facility. While I want to emphasize each kid’s right to what belongs to them, I also have a responsibility to make sure our community materials are being shared.
So when I asked the question, I was trying to figure out which scenario this interaction fell into.
“Did you ask if you could touch it?”
It was pretty simply answered when Sam replied, “No.”
“Okay.” I stepped closer so I could see better. Each kids had a pile of Legos. Alan had a few more than Sam did.
“I want the hat,” Sam said.
“And I said no. I said he can’t have it,” Alan relayed to me.
“So, Sam,” I said, “Alan’s got the hat right now. It’s not okay to take something from someone if they said no.”
Sam contested this. He tried to backpedal, tell me the whole story, of how he’d had the piece first, even though that had been a few hours ago, how no one ever let him play, though he’d been playing with them for the past twenty minutes. I tried to get back to the point, which was that “No means no.”
I realized pretty quickly that this was about more than a Lego piece.
Sam felt entitled to the piece, even though it wasn’t his, even though Alan had it, even though Alan said no.
Sam kept contesting this, no matter how simply I tried to put it. Eventually, some of the other kids butted in. Usually I don’t like it when other kids get in on a discussion between me and one other, but this time I backed off a bit. When I heard what they were saying, I realized this was an important interaction between not campers and counselors, but campers and campers. If they figured this out between themselves, it would have that much more meaning.
“Alan didn’t even say you could have it,” Jordan said.
“Alan told me I could. I should get it.”
“I didn’t say yes,” Alan said. “I said maybe.”
“No, you didn’t,” Sam said. “You said you would give it to me.”
“He said maybe,” Evan interjected.
“No. He said will.”
“I heard. Alan said maybe,” Jordan put in.
“I said maybe,” Alan insisted.
“No, you said you would.”
“Either way,” I put in, “you can’t just take it if he changed his mind and said no.”
“Yes I can!” Sam insisted. “You can’t say yes and then turn around and say no.”
“He didn’t say yes, he said maybe,” Evan said.
“I said maybe. And then I said no. So no!”
“You said yes! You can’t just take it back!” Sam said.
Some of the others tried to stop things and just keep playing; normally I would agree and cut things off after we hit stalemates like this, just to keep the peace. But I found this point too important to just let go. My belief was confirmed when Jordan spoke up again.
“You know what, Sam?” he said. “If you ask, and he says maybe, he can take it back. Even if he says yes, he can still take it back. So just leave him alone already!”
Jordan had uttered a crucial statement that I hope he’ll carry with him the rest of his life. Consent is verbal and voluntary, and can be withdrawn at any time. Something grown-ass adults have a hard time grasping.
I was relieved when the other kids at the table agreed with Jordan. They stood up for Alan and reinforced the point that his “No” was important and needed to be respected. But Sam stared back steadily and said, “No. He can’t.” I broke a little inside.
It took a lot more fighting among them, a lot more stern talk and persuading from me, and Sam was still staunchly convinced that he had a right to take what he wanted, regardless of the other person’s feelings or needs.
Sam left that day still convinced that he had been the one wronged, that everyone was ganging up on him. He walked out with a skewed sense of what consent looked like. I worried for him; I worried for his home life, his future; what he might do to others–what he may let others do to him–if he continued life with this conviction.
I cried because I was so proud of Jordan for understanding what grown men refuse to. I was proud of the others for standing up for Alan when they saw him being intimidated and taken advantage of. I was scared, both of and for, Sam. I was shaken by the power in those minutes at the Lego table, and how much they said about my world and theirs.
I wanted to say something to Jordan’s mom when she came to pick him up, to let her know how proud I was of Jordan for understanding the importance of consent. But I wasn’t sure what would be effective and appropriate.
I have many, many hours to teach my kids about consent and the other lessons I try to weave into each day. Still, it often seems like every second is precious, and I need to squeeze every drop of significance from it. We live in a world where things can happen in a millisecond. Kids absorb what they see and experience. They internalize what authority figures convince them to believe. Those things can be positive or negative, or just things; but if I see each day as a series of choices flavored by the lessons I’ve learned, each day is at least one lesson that will shape a child’s perceptions, feelings, mindset, actions, reactions, and eventually their world.
As the adults–authority figures–in their lives, we need to make sure the lessons we teach are positive ones, that lead to positive growth.
If a 9 year old kid can use Legos to teach us about consent, why can’t the grown-ups of the world do something before our kids become rapists or raped?
When I think of all the kids I have been privileged enough to encounter in my short time working with youth, I can remember every time one of them said or did something that changed my entire perspective. I remember the stories that I heard from the students in South Dakota that made me realize what I wanted to do with my life. I remember the middle schooler who said inspirational things about life and then told me her life was not meaningful. I remember the six year old who told me she wanted to die. I remember the high schoolers who told me what life was like at their school, telling me things that I never thought could happen. I remember the elementary school girl who made her fingers into a gun and pointed them at her head. I remember the tears of the kids who couldn’t go home when they wanted to and couldn’t think about anything else. I remember the kids who cling to my arms crying and can’t tell me what it is that they’re feeling. I remember the four year old who ran around the room pretending to shoot people. I remember the boy who ran around the room knocking things over and screaming and then flung his arms around me and held my hand and sat in my lap. I remember the faces of all the kids I’ve ever worked with. I have so many names etched into my existence. I have so many voices laced into my dreams. I have so many stories weighing down my heart. Sometimes I wonder how I manage to rise in the morning and smile at my kids when they run to me shouting my name and hid my tears until I fall into bed at night.
My parents sent me a package for Christmas.
I deleted the text my mom sent me telling me about it and tried to forget. It came a few days later. There was a box and a padded envelope. I took them to my apartment. I felt so angry holding them. And at the same time I felt guilty. I felt real shame. That here was a set of parents sending me gifts when I hadn’t sent them anything. Parents who were willing to give me things while I was planning to separate myself from them for good.
I dropped them on the floor and walked away to take off my jacket and boots. I considered leaving them untouched. Seeing that name on the address label—the name they still called me, probably always would—the name I thought I wouldn’t have to think about, the name that shouldn’t have belonged to me anymore if things had gone right. I walked back and ripped open the envelope. Inside was a money pouch decorated with passport photos of other countries. I opened it, thinking that maybe they’d left me some cash inside. But they hadn’t. Of course not.
I opened the box. A bunch of wrapped gifts lay inside. I took the top one out, noticing the tissue paper and ribbons that my favorite gift shop always used. The thought just made me angry. I wasn’t thinking in pictures but feeling in memories when the flashbacks came. All the times I’d gone in there buying things, shopping with my parents. The time I went in with my friend who came to visit me over break because I was panicking in the house for the four weeks I was forced to stay with them. The time years before when I went in with my mom to buy a present for my dad, and when I snapped at her just a little she threw the gift back at me and stormed out the door like a wounded high school mean girl. The times I’d walk in by myself when I was let out of work early to avoid going back to the house.
I put the gifts back in the box and shoved everything into my room, which was already littered with dirty laundry and leftovers from the semester. They stayed there for a while. Thinking about them made me angry. And also guilty. I felt so ashamed that I was begrudging gifts from my family. Didn’t that mean they still thought about me? That they actually did care? How ungrateful was I to want to remove myself from that? I thought back about the things they’d done. And they times it seemed like they might have loved me.
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the abuse was all in my head. Maybe I was just an ungrateful, naïve, attention-seeking nobody influenced by a few books and opinions.
A conversation with a friend reminded me of the things my parents would love me to forget.
When they told me not to tell anyone I was gay, and forced me to cut off contact with the support group I was talking with.
When my father berated me for writing a letter to the governor advocating for environmentally friendly policies.
All the times my mother shamed me for embarrassing her in public—scolded me, shunned me, for things like forgetting my phone number when ordering a book and being too busy to help my brother when we were volunteering at a theater. For asking for rides to work and my internship. For asking my little brother if he needed help with his math homework.
I remembered my father standing in the kitchen facing me and my little brother and saying “I can’t believe you would be influenced by the most selfish person I know” and turning to stare me full in the face because that person was me.
All the times my parents locked themselves in their room or the office for hours and hours each day and how many days we went seeing them only at meals.
The passive-aggression surrounding each individual chore in the house, the tension and fear when doing them was wrong and not doing them was worse. How helping without being asked was something to be ashamed of because the smallest thing would be done wrong and nothing was worth being thanked for; but how waiting to be asked just showed how ungrateful, spoiled and entitled we were as children. The genuine anxiety that went into every load of dishes and every basket of laundry.
The hearts pounding because you never knew if the silence from the parents was because of something you did that they’re just not going to mention. The whispered conversations behind slammed doors.
My mom ranting about me to her mother on the phone every Sunday; the unsettling number of times she vented to me about my dad’s parents, pitting me against them and him, even when the family took the thirteen hour drive to visit them. She always found time to pull me away and tell me all the awful things about my dad’s family. How it all rubbed off on him, how much she hated him. And how much I should hate my oldest brother for being like him. And yet despite that demanding I be sweet to his face, thank him for each tiny service as if it wasn’t his obligation as a parent to provide for us. She micro-managed my every interaction, told me who to be at every turn, yet still found reasons to blame me for everything that went wrong.
The tone in my father’s voice when he accused me of using feminism to promote my gay agenda. His refusal to talk about my sexuality or my two relationships with women. His voice when he called me to yell at me about my email telling them I’d started taking medication. Asking about every detail of my life, insisting my illnesses were all in my head, that I was stupid and naïve for believing the doctor when he prescribed the medication. Demanding to know why I never told them anything anymore. I retaliated. “Do you really think I feel safe with you after how you handled my coming out?” He denied saying the things that he did. I remember him saying them. That he didn’t believe I had a right to get married, that if I was gay I could never have my own family. That most gay people were bad and flaunted their sexuality. That night on the phone I threw statistics at him about transgender suicide and homeless LGBTQ youth. “But none of that is you,” he told me. “You’re choosing to be oppressed.”
Throughout the next few days I opened the presents one by one. A jar of coconut oil. A stick of lip balm. A book about opera. A pair of thick striped socks. I left them lying in my room. They were all things I needed or liked. I felt so ashamed. It meant they knew me. They knew what I wanted.
But then I realized they never bothered to ask what I needed.
They sent me a money bag as if that made up for all the times they refused to give me money. They gave me lip balm as if that would heal the wounds left by their words. They sent me coconut oil not knowing I’d bought one earlier that week with the groceries that ate the last of my paycheck. They gave me socks as if that was the only comfort they cared to provide after twenty one years of abuse.
The gifts they gave me were safe gifts. They were the things I always wanted, the things I would never say no to. They came from stock facts about me. That I like to cook, I like opera, I like cool socks. Things they always knew. That almost everyone who knows me knows.
They never bothered to ask me what I wanted. And they keep refusing to give me what I need.
I’m not going to feel ashamed because of that. I’m not ungrateful. I’m not selfish. I’m not naïve.
I’m more of a person than they ever let me be.
I don’t have to like their gifts. I don’t have to be grateful for them. I don’t have to be guilty I didn’t get them anything. I don’t owe them anything for pretending they know me.
In the end the most liberating thing for me is how wrong they both are. My dad said I would never have a family of my own. My mom told me I’d never know what it was like to feel the unconditional love towards a child. But it’s the other way around.
I have a family now that’s more real than mine with them ever was. A family of people who love and support me for real and who know what I need and ask me what I want.
And I know the unconditional love towards a child. I feel that for every kid I’ve ever worked with. The fierce desire to protect. The patience to work through their most trying moments. The energy to see them day after day and always bring a smile to the table no matter how hard my day has been. The sadness when they walk away without saying goodbye. The comfort of knowing that no matter what happens, the love we shared will never, ever go away.
I almost feel sorry for my mom. She doesn’t get the comfort of knowing that. She blew it with me. And she doesn’t get to see the joy in my kids’ faces when they run up to me squealing my name. And she’ll never feel the swell of joy I get when I know how much I mean to them. And they’re not even my own children. I can’t wait until I have some of my own.
My parents didn’t send me those gifts because they cared. They sent them because it was an easy thing to do. They want to reel me back in. A consolation prize. And that’s exactly what abusers do.
It’s been a year since I set foot in that house and I’m never going back.
I saw two kids (siblings) from one of my old groups at the store today. I noticed the older sister first and did a double take when I saw her, which unfortunately drew attention to myself. We made eye contact a few times. She said hello, so I said hello back. She was staring at me pretty hard. I think she was trying to figure out how she knew me. She poked her little brother, who was sitting in the seat on their parent’s shopping cart. She asked him who I was. He looked at me and his happy little face glowed with a warm smile. “Hi Tonie!” he chirped. The sister looked back at me and said “Oh! Tonie!” she ran over to give me a hug. “Hey sweetheart” I whispered before she ran back to her confused looking parent. They left the store, the little boy waving at me from his seat.
I almost cried–I miss them so much, and it’s amazing to witness their happiness when they see me again. I hope that in my future, as I continue my work with youth, I have many more moments like this.
On Monday I was planning suicide. I woke up with a grim determination that it was time for my life to be over. I felt nothing. Not when my roommate said good morning. Not when my friend walked to work with me. Not when I taught Safe Ally Training to a bunch of wonderful people with one of my closest friends. Not when I tutored one of my own students, not when my boss joked around with me. I was wearing the mask my mother had taught me to use after years of her isolating me when I showed emotion.
I laughed. I smiled. I engaged in conversation. I was productive. But inside I was numb, burnt out by pain and loneliness and self-hatred. Inside I was convinced my friends had never really loved me, that my close friends would soon cease to love me. Inside, I was ready to die.
A few friends reached out. Noticed I was upset. I felt nothing. I went through the motions. I counted the hours till I could escape.
I thought of asking for help. Calling Crisis.
It never occurred to me to tell a friend. Never occurred that there were people who cared. I was convinced no one did.
I decided to go to work first. The last job of the day. My kids.
As I got ready to go, thoughts of self-preservation left in favor of writing out a will. I left my wallet, my money, and my cards on my desk. I5 gave my cat extra food, extra love. I snuggled the bunnies that didn’t like me. I conversed briefly with my roommate’s boyfriend, pretending I was invested, pretending I wasn’t about to leave and never come back.
When my ride dropped me off after work, I decided, I’d walk away and never come back. I’d find a bridge. I’d jump. It would all be over.
I wore my mask all the way there. Engaged in pleasant conversation with my ride. No one was allowed to see what was going on inside me.
I went through the motions at work. Laughed with my co-workers. Pretended everything was fine. They had no idea.
Then it was time to check in my kids.
I walked into the room where I was supposed to be to check in my 12 kindergartners. Incidentally, the teacher had let them out early today. Over half of them were already there, and they were looking for me. Under the table. Around corners.
They yelled my name when they saw me, and one ran into me for a hug. Several asked where I had been. I laughed and told them I hadn’t known they were there.
“Were you worried I wouldn’t come?” I asked one of the more vocal kids.
He tilted his head in consideration, then shook it definitively. “No, I knew you would be here,” he said.
That’s when the feeling came–for the first time–guilt. Worry. Regret.
How could I leave these kids behind?
I heard them saying my name with enthusiasm. I saw their excitement at seeing me. I saw their pure joy when they received new shoes as part of the programming for the day. I witnessed their sadness and fatigue when they encountered difficulties during the day. I listened to their needs and allowed them to skip homework. Instead, we played quiet games and colored pictures until it was time to go home.
I smiled and laughed with the parents, telling them about their child’s day, saying goodbye to the kids and hearing them chatter excitedly about what they had done and how excited they were to come back.
What was I thinking? I couldn’t leave my kids behind.
I rode back with my ride, in silence this time. I loved my kids. But I couldn’t shake what I had been feeling all day. I made a deal with myself: if she dropped me off in the parking lot, I’d run and find a bridge. If she walked back to the building with me, I’d make up some story about “forgetting” my ID and let her let both of us in.
But when she dropped me off at the parking lot, I walked back to the apartment slowly, and thought about the kids–would they miss me on Wednesday if I was not just late, but really and truly not there?
What about the class I mentored for? They were coming over on Tuesday. Maybe I could still around at least until then.
A stranger let me into my building. I knocked on my apartment door, and my roommate let me in. i bluffed it off. Pretended I’d forgotten. I was just tired. Went to bed.
Her friends came over and I went back and forth, trying to be social, trying to convince people I was fine. But I’d always retreat back into my room, feeling like crying but at the same time too numb to do anything but lie there.
No matter how many times my roommate asked me what was wrong, I couldn’t say anything. I was just sick, I lied, just tired. I didn’t know why I was so sad. There was no reason. I kept the mask on.
Tuesday morning it was the same. I skipped my 8am class. Too sick, I convinced myself, even though it was only a small cold I’d been living with.
I got up ad went to work again. Tutoring. I joked around. But inside I was seething. This time I was angry–angry at absolutely everything and everyone. I even hated being queer. I hated everything about myself and my life. I wasn’t looking forward to anything, I was just sticking around to do what I felt was necessary before I took the next step, whether that was suicide or calling crisis.
My supervisor decided for me. I stormed into the Pride Center, ranting about something or other. She asked me what was wrong. Said I didn’t look like myself.
I told her I wanted to die, but I kept waiting until my commitments were over, but they never were. I was living hour to hour with suicidal thoughts and it was only a matter of time before I did something.
She said, “You need to talk to someone.”
I said, “I know, I will, after tonight.”
She said, “No, I think you should talk to somebody right now.”
I pushed back a few more times. I needed to go to class. To see my students. To attend the club meeting for which I was co-president. Eventually she won.
“Should I see someone on campus?”
They would just tell me to go to Crisis, so I may as well just get a friend to drive me there and skip the police car.
Another friend was there and gave me a few pointers. What to look for. Where to go. I texted some friends, asking who was available to drive me. Within seconds my roommate replied, telling me to meet her outside the Union.
I gathered my things and walked outside. My numbness was wearing off as the situation became more real. Why was I doing this? Why was I so scared? Why did no one trust me to stick around?
I’d had the training. I should know.
I wanted to die.
I wanted to die, and my friends were trying to keep me safe.
Even if that meant going away . Even if that meant being processed by strangers. Even if that meant admitting that I was a danger to myself.