My dad was homeless for two years. He was fired from his job because of his heavy drinking and long-term alcoholism.
For awhile, he slept in his van. When winter came, he sold the van for a bus pass and lived in various homeless shelters. The one I remember the most distinctly was in the bowels of Detroit, in an area that nobody sane would wander around at night. I remember wanting to see him for Thanksgiving, but the bus wasn’t going to run late enough for him to come to dinner. I also remember taking him to a hotel room so he had somewhere to sleep on Christmas Day. I remember crying in my car, feeling like I should be doing more, but understanding that I had already done everything I could to help and it was on him now.
The reason I bring this up isn’t because I want to tell a sob story for pity, but because this period in my life gave me an entirely new perspective. I always remembered being nervous around homeless people on the streets; people who begged both out loud and with signs, scraggly men and women with bad teeth and unfortunate circumstances, people I assumed who would take sign of goodwill and use it for booze and drugs, not for food.
And then, all of a sudden, I looked at those homeless people and I saw my dad. I saw him in every single person on street. It took me a long time to not feel like my heart was being shredded to pieces by it. Before, I couldn’t ever imagine anyone I knew and especially anyone I loved ending up on the streets. It was so real now.
Okay, here is the education connection: it is real in our classrooms, too. I have had students who were homeless. Students with parents with drug problems. Students who have been abused. Students who might still be abused. Students who have been sexually assaulted. Students with eating disorders, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts. Students who are in gangs. Students who have watched people die because of gang violence and gun violence. Students who simply grew up neglected and unloved.
And the sad truth? You walk into that classroom and you have no idea who those students are. But I can guarantee that at least one of them is sitting through school that day without knowing where she/he is sleeping that night, and they’re not going to come with a pretty little label like scraggly man with bad teeth.
This all sounds like some sort of nightmarish urban classroom, but even teaching in a “nice” area doesn’t exempt you. We had homeless kids in Ann Arbor. I work at a very expensive boarding school, and there are still students who suffer from homelessness. A rather wild example is a student from Russia who has a parent involved in journalism that wrote some unflattering pieces about Russia. Because of this, their family has been exiled from their homeland. He can never return to Russia. Homelessness, as with many situations, isn’t always cut and dry.
Every kid has a story. I can say this for certain: my past teachers that have made a genuine effort to listen to my story have easily been the most influential people in my life thus far. They helped me find the confidence I needed to become so much more than I ever thought possible. I know that the absolute best way to thank them for what they have done is to pay it forward and do the same for a new generation of students who need it, too.
This one is for those teachers. You know who you are.