I remember being 15 and in high school. I grew up in a small, rural, White Christian town in the Midwest. My parents had been married for almost 30 years by the time I graduated high school… as had most of my friends’ parents. My dad made sure I valued education because he dropped out when he was 15 and never finished. My mom never went to college and wanted to be certain that I received the grades to go to any university I wanted. I thought the hardest thing in my life during high school was the fact that my farmer parents raised me to be a tomboy so I wasn’t the girly girl who boys wanted to date.
I ended up becoming a social worker. I’ve worked with at-risk youth in Grand Rapids, Detroit, Seattle, and Chicago–mainly in residential settings where I became a pseudo parent and educator. I have been inspired by the stories they have told me about their educational experiences. I believe the most important stories to understand are those that many minimally privileged people don’t typically think of.
This is what they taught me… imagine going to school when you haven’t eaten in 3 days and the last meal you had was pulled from the garbage. Your mother and her current boyfriend have been on a weeklong bender and hit you when you came home so you chose that it’s safer to be on the streets than at home. You aren’t sure where you are going to stay each night or if it will be safe once you find a place. You worry about getting shot in a drive-by or getting jumped by gang members to and from school because that has happened to at least 10 of your closest friends. Now, imagine having that experience and actually making it to school. Imagine having other kids bully you because you smell since you haven’t had a shower or a place to wash your clothes. Imagine the teachers yelling at you because you fell asleep in class again, although it’s the first time you’ve felt safe enough to close your eyes. Imagine getting in trouble when you yell at someone although you mainly just snapped because you are hungry and tired and mad at your mom. Imagine not being able to put words to what you have experienced or being too scared that if you tell, you will get hit harder, might get shot, or might not have a couch to sleep on.
This is a common experience for an at-risk youth. While I grew up in a family privileged enough that I thought school was a need, working with at-risk youth made me quickly realize that education is a privilege, not a basic need. A basic need is housing, food, safety, and love. Understand that most youths that experience situations like these don’t have the words to speak about them or understand that this is an experience they do not deserve.
–Tracy DeTomasi is a social worker with more than 10 years of experience. She is passionate about helping at-risk youths and provides a unique perspective about how to help these youths flourish. We hope to see more of her insight in our blogs (hint, hint).