My first mandatory report came sometime in early October. As my students for my fifth period class walked into class to take their seats, one of my students, Elizabeth, walked by looking as if she were crying. When I settled everyone down and ensured they were quietly working, I took Elizabeth off to the side and asked her what was wrong.
It’s always a bit of a coin toss when you ask a middle school student what’s wrong: either something is really wrong, or something on the “middle school” level of pain (breakup, friend troubles, etc.) is happening. When I pulled Elizabeth aside, I realized it was serious.
“I’m just worried about Bella,” she said, another girl in her class. I glanced over at Bella, who was writing down her homework for the day. “She told me something bad before we came into class.”
I was on high alert. I’d heard enough stories, had enough conversations with students and colleagues, to race ahead to the worst possible conclusions. I tried to speak calmly while I explained to Elizabeth that I could only help Bella if she told me what Bella told her; a delicate balance, to try and persuade a young student to betray her friend’s loyalty to a teacher. Elizabeth told me that Bella had begun cutting herself again, explaining that it hadn’t happened for some time but that she had restarted the practice last night.
I thanked Elizabeth for her honesty and sent her back to her desk, silently frantic about how to proceed next. I couldn’t let Bella leave my classroom and go home, on the chance that she hurt herself again, but I couldn’t bank on the possibility that a principal would be in the front office when the bell rang.
This class was my largest, worst-behaved class, always a bit rowdier because it was in the afternoons when students were ready to go home. I went to the librarian and asked her quietly if she could cover my class while I took a student to the front office, and she agreed. After the class began working on the assignment, I called Bella over to me, thanked the librarian again, and took Bella to the front office. We went to the front desk and were taken into my principal’s office to wait for him.
It was a painful few seconds of silence. Bella clearly knew why we were here, after having seen me talk to Elizabeth and then quickly taken her to the front office. She didn’t speak, looking at the desk in front of her. I didn’t know how to communicate to her how concerned I was; I didn’t know if it was professionally appropriate to tell her that, while in school, I had friends who had suffered with depression and self-harm. While we waited for the principal to arrive, I spoke to her quietly, trying to convey how much I cared about her and that she was not in trouble.
My principal began asking questions as soon as he arrived. He made it clear that Bella wasn’t in trouble, like I had, and told her that we just wanted to make sure she was safe. Through that conversation, we learned that her mother was currently detained in a jail a few towns away from us. Her mother and stepfather had been driving, and were pulled over by the police; although her mom wasn’t driving, she was asked for identification and, having none, the officer eventually learned that she was an illegal immigrant. She was being held in the jail to learn whether she was going to be deported. Bella, in the meantime, was living with her stepfather. She and her stepfather, at that time, had only known each other for a few months.
I remember keeping Bella in class after the bell rang, sometime in late spring, to talk to her about focusing on schoolwork while in class. At the end of the conversation, I asked how her mother was doing, and she told me that her mother hadn’t yet been deported but was still in jail. In 7th grade, when kids should be worried about fitting in and figuring out who they are, Bella spent the school year worried that her mother was going to be deported and taken away from her.
How do you respond to a twelve-year-old who tells you she hasn’t seen her mom in over seven months because she may be deported?
This may not be the average 7th grade experience, but it is not an entirely unique one. Add other traumatic experiences – death of a family member, abuse, neglect – and the list of students goes up substantially. I never felt prepared for situations like these during my first year. Throughout the year, I became better at handling the situations in the moment and better at processing them outside of work, but I never became better at conveying to my friends and family what it was like to deal with that (or worry about that) regularly in my work.