Important School Supplies to Remember: Listening & Support

I admit it. I was a runaway. Not in the traditional sense – we all know the statistics and the real stories behind runaway behavior. However, I ran away often. Whenever I was with an older sibling or parent in a store, I would take off when the person was not paying attention, and I would head straight for the school supplies. After a while, they knew where to look, and they would leave me alone to touch the paper, smell the crayons, and to stare in awe at the collection of glue, scissors, pens, and rulers before me. School was a haven. It was a place I could go and not hear fights, not hear cries, and not hear the frustrations that come with trying to raise your children on a week-to-week income with no room for anything but the basics.

I could go to school and learn about new things and different places. I could see other kids and could spot the ones who loved the experience as much as I did. I could also spot the ones who did not. My earliest school memories were tied to a small town filled with traditions and customs. In hindsight, I recognize the stares from those who lived “across the tracks” at my secondhand clothing and the old truck in which my father drove me to school. Those stares were full of unfriendly messages that I did not belong and that I wasn’t good enough. As I got older, I tried to buffer myself against the reaction of others, and I would ask my father to drop me off a little bit away from the school so I could walk and perhaps gain some measure of respect with the others who had earned the right to be one of the walkers. He was sure it was because I must have been embarrassed by the truck. My father was a smart man. He was also sensitive. I got to walk.

Today, our shelters and programs are filled with youth who either see school as a haven or as a harsh reality of their lack of choices. Youth with clothing allotments and donated school supplies try to blend in as much as I did as a child, yet for them, it is very different. I did not have to deal with cell phone cameras and others texting pictures to groups of people ready to stare in different yet equally painful ways. I did not have to deal with teachers so overwhelmed with paperwork, drugs, and school shooting protocols that they could not admire a drawing or ask me the origins of one of my stories.

At this time of year, it is worth it to spend a bit of time asking youth some questions and listening to the feelings behind their answers. Perhaps questions such as:

  • When you go to school, what do you feel when you walk through the doors?
  • Who do you look forward to seeing at your school?
  • What is the class you would most like to skip if you could?
  • What are the things you wish I could do to make school a good experience for you?
  • What are the things that make you feel safe at school? What are the things that do not?

Most of us credit education for at least contributing to our current place in this world. We know what we know from life, we learned what we learned from books, and we put them together to makes sense of our world.

In late July, I still run away to the school supply aisle, and the people at the office store know me on sight. The paper is still smooth to the touch, and the smell of the crayons makes me smile. I wish I could climb up in my father’s truck and ride with him all the way to the front door of the school and kiss him goodbye and climb down and walk through the door with pride and a sense of the temporary nature of the school experience. Going back to school means you left it once, and you will leave it again. Help our youth walk through the doors with confidence, support, and, pride for what they bring with them. It may not be a lot, but it is a start.

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