The System Failed Me

I was always a good student — I did very well academically. Every nine weeks, we had these standardized tests for the state. I would always place in “advanced” — I would only miss two or three questions. And that made everyone say: “Oh, he’s smart. The only problem is he has behavioral issues.”

And I suppose they weren’t entirely wrong. As early as kindergarten, I did have certain behavioral challenges — I couldn’t sit still and I couldn’t keep quiet. My teachers and administrators never really knew what to do with me, so they kept me busy with extracurricular programs. I did it all, but most of it was busywork.

In third grade, I was at the top of my class. It was around this time when a lot of transitions started happening at home. When I was six, my mom was released from prison. Things started moving fast. She got remarried and we moved to Antioch. I didn’t have a real connection with my mom, let alone the man she married, so my home environment was very uncomfortable. 

I already had behavior issues before my mom got out of prison because I was tossed around so much. When she was released, she didn’t really take time to understand me and eventually started whooping me. And her new husband didn’t tolerate anything, so there were a lot of whoopings going on. With these things happening at home, it changed how I looked at people and expressed myself — and this definitely impacted how I felt and behaved in the school environment. I got suspended a lot in elementary school and was sometimes sent to a lower-grade classroom or to the principal’s office. 

There are two particular events I remember that go hand in hand. In third grade, around February or March, I had an outburst with one of my former teachers, I’ll call her Ms. M. We’re still close to this day and she remembers the entire thing.

I just freaked out. It felt like my body was in the classroom but my mind was at home. It was weird. I had one of those outbursts and the principals and staff removed me from the classroom.

That day, they called my stepfather — and when he came into the classroom, he immediately started grabbing me. To this day, I can’t believe they called him — the person I was freaking out about. They moved me out of Ms. M’s classroom, but they asked me to keep quiet about the incident. And even though my teacher was scared and concerned, they asked her to keep quiet too.

My new classroom was not for advanced students and they took me out of a lot of my related arts classes. All of a sudden, I had a lot of downtime and I became really annoyed. I did a lot of sitting and staring. 

Then testing time came. I was used to doing well and to my teachers trusting that I’d do well. But now I was in a classroom where the teachers put a lot of pressure on the students, which builds frustration. I freaked out yet again. This time, the teacher physically grabbed me and I started throwing things. Because of everything going on at home, when my teacher grabbed me, it put me back in that space.

My teacher went into this whole defensive thing, like … “I’m so tired of your type.” I later realized she was referring to my behavior issues. We got into this whole back-and-forth verbal altercation. I’ve always been articulate with my words, so I tried to tell her: “You’re not understanding that you’re hurting me. I’m being hurt at home and now you’re touching me and it reminds me of that.” I felt like she wasn’t listening to me and she just kept yelling.

I told the principal. And the principal said: “You just don’t understand structure and discipline.” And guess what he did — he called my stepfather. And my stepfather’s response was: “He really needs a whoopin’— then he needs to go back to class.” So the principal offered up the bathroom in his office for my stepfather to whoop me. He even offered up his belt. Back then they had belts with rhinestones and I got whooped with that. And I remember having to grab the rail in the bathroom as the rhinestones hit the ground. I remember my teeth chattering as he kept striking me. It felt like I was intentionally being tortured. 

I remember coming out of the office and the principal just shaking his head. They said the situation was so big that I would be expelled. I had to go before the school board, and after testing, they decided to expel me for the rest of the school year.

I remember thinking, “I’m asking for help and nobody’s doing anything.” It was the strangest thing to me that I was crying out for help and everybody overlooked it.

Ms. M. said: “You just had so much going on and they wouldn’t listen to me. I could not watch you get hurt. I would call Child Protective Services and they told me that wasn’t my place.” She didn’t know what else to do.

Around this time, I started running away because I dealt with so much abuse at home. I’ll never forget this one guidance counselor. She called everybody she could. And of course, it didn’t really help. When they’d call agencies and do therapy or other interventions, my biological mother and stepfather made up this perfect story of how they rose against adversity. They said I just had to learn to transition from the ghetto to a more upper-class area. They would say: “He’s just adapting. He’s just reacting. He doesn’t like it here.” Stuff like that, which wasn’t true.

Child Protective Services would only meet me at school, so they never witnessed the things I experienced at home. It blows my mind. I went through 14 different agencies from kindergarten to sixth grade. Fourteen agencies. I went through 34 counselors and social workers. There was a lot of turnover because every time a counselor said something my mother or stepfather didn’t like or gave me a diagnosis they didn’t approve of, they would be dismissed. I was put on different strong medications used to sedate me. And I was never removed from the home.

Things Could Have Been Different

The system as we call it, or social services, failed me. A lot of things I had to go through at home could have been prevented. A lot of things in I endured the education setting could have also been prevented. The school should have taken the time to find out what was behind my outburst, but it really wasn’t equipped. And I think that that was a big part of it. The lack of training, the lack of knowledge, the lack of understanding.

I loved English. I loved reading and helping other students. I loved decorating. I was a music person — I love music even to this day. I sing. If I was given the opportunity and we used my so-called disabilities as advantages, I would be so much further along. If I was talking too much, that could have been something we cultivated into public speaking. Moving too much — I could be an athlete. Tearing stuff up — I could make art. They should have redirected my energies. 

There are still places where the school system misses the mark today. Suspension is not always the answer. Throwing children and families into agencies is not always the answer. Yelling and screaming and judging is never the answer. 

In my fairytale world, I would have wanted a good counselor or someone to listen. Someone to listen and to hear. Not only that, but someone to be objective. Someone to talk with me, to give me tips, or refer me to the right places. Someone who would actually do an evaluation instead of just going by biased observations. Someone to take the time to really understand what was going on.

If I had those former school staff and counselors in front of me now, I would ask them: Why can’t this be a reality? Why can’t you take the time to hear and understand your students?

If we really want to make a difference and impact the future, let’s start by listening. 

Brandon was supported through a partnership with Bellwether Education Partners funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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