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Believing in Change

At this time, at the beginning of a new school year, some changes are inevitable. Others are only going to be possible when we collectively believe in them for students... The following is an excerpt from Chapter 17 in Bridging the Gap Between Learning and Living.

Not long after I learned that the prison system in the US is on the stock market, I was asked to meet a student in one of the worst urban areas in America. Tyrell was said to be “in crisis.” He was perpetually leaving the classroom (at times, the school building), roaming the halls, interrupting other classes, and becoming verbally abusive and violent when re-directed back to the conditions of the school environment. Tyrell was eight years old.

One of the problems was obvious: the conditions of the school were not representative of the conditions of life as he knew it. It imposed rules in a seemingly rule-less world. The task of schools in these corners of our country is to somehow show students what is possible, beyond the reality in which they live. It is like asking someone to trust a mirage in a dessert, to move forward on hope alone, while thirsty.

I first met Tyrell in a classroom where students exhibiting behavior challenges go as an alternative to their regular classrooms. I call it, the holding room. There, they wait. They wait to feel better. They wait to receive help. They wait for another chance. The room was full of young, African-American boys.

I entered the room and said, “Hi everyone!” with a smile. Tyrell immediately looked at me from across the room and waved in response with a softened expression on his face. I casually made my way to his side of the large room, where he sat at a table with one other student. He invited me to join them. I said that I was new to the school and I had some questions about how everything worked. Tyrell quickly offered up information.

He shared his sweet, and accurate, perception of how students came to be in the room where we were and what they had to do to exit. It felt like a mini-prison. And I understood it…sort of. I understood that when we bring young people, who are accustomed to violence and desperate actions, inside to learn that we need to create structure. We need to focus their restless energy, which is rooted in fear and uncertainty, and begin to teach them information. I understood it, but I couldn’t feel it in the room where we were. There was no focus to change, only a room to wait.

I also couldn’t feel how Tyrell, an eight-year-old boy, who had recently been a bystander to a shooting on the street, would feel safe in this room, built solely on conditions for entering and exiting. I couldn’t feel how he would feel confident to return to his classroom and do better than what he had done to get in here. And I couldn’t feel how he would know that he had incredible potential to live a happy and productive life, despite his present surroundings.

When I opened my portfolio to take notes on Tyrell’s measured explanations, he referenced my business cards and asked, “Are those your business cards?”

I said, “Yes.”

He then said confidently, “I can pass them out for you if you want,” in the most cooperative tone of voice.

I melted inside, and suddenly, I felt what nothing in that room or building had offered me yet. It was the whisper of pure, unselfish goodness.

I smiled. “Thank you, that is so nice of you!” I said.

He smiled back proudly.

“Do you know what that tells me about you?” I asked.

Tyrell looked curiously and said, “What?”

“It tells me that you have a whole lot of love in you.” His eyes sparkled and he waited patiently for me to continue.

“Because you don’t even know who I am and you’re offering to help me. And that takes a lot of love.”

Tyrell smiled, followed by a confident nod. Then he began to tell me about all his family members, and how much they loved him. In his mind, he was simply paying forward the love he had received from others.

And that was it. That was the moment when success stepped in. Hearts were opened, both of ours. And once hearts are opened, anything can happen. I was invited to that school to meet, and fix, a violent, aggressive, defiant young man. Instead, I met a boy full of love, and that made all the difference. We both saw the hope we needed to move forward together.

After several observations of Tyrell and consultations with others, most importantly his mother, I developed a Positive Behavior Support plan for him; a roadmap of how he could make more positive choices. I attended a final meeting to review the plan with his team. I was speaking to his teachers, whom I believed were good people showing up to do their job the best they could every day. I shared what I consider to be the essential element of all change, and indeed the plan I was proposing for Tyrell: “We have to believe that he can do better.”

At the end of the meeting, Tyrell’s stepfather followed me down the stairs of the school and said, “Excuse me, ma’am.”

I looked at him with appreciation and empathy, knowing he held the toughest job out of all of us: to usher this boy into being a good man, while living among brokenness.

He said, “What you said in there about believing in him... There is a way to believe with your head, and there is way to believe with your heart. You just brought heart into that room, and I thank you.”

Months later, the director of the school, who was following a typical course of suspension with Tyrell before I stepped in, met my boss - with a hug and gratitude. He brought her to Tyrell's classroom and pointed him out. He was sitting at his desk, following the program.

Each and every one of us are capable of positive change. The first step is believing that that is true.

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