I teach struggling Middle School readers. They are between the ages of 12 and 14. Many of them come from homes full of stress – emotional and financial. Some don’t eat enough. Some of them are abused constantly at home. Some of them don’t have a conversation with any adult outside of our school building. Their parents work multiple jobs, they’re alcoholics, they’re mentally ill, they don’t have the emotional energy to speak to them. The reason doesn’t matter. Students come to school desperate for someone to listen and to feel safe, and if they don’t – they can’t learn or connect.
My students have experienced huge and real things in their lives. I don’t know how to process many of the disturbing secrets that they tell me about the horrors of their lives. It feels completely insane for me to say that it’s hard for me to process the idea of what these kids are actually experiencing. How do they “process” it? I don’t think I knew what the act of “rape” was when I was 13. My students have told me stories about rapes and about being hit and about alcoholic fathers. They live in fear of the INS, of CPS and of not ever meeting the siblings that their parents left behind in their country. I’m not sure I could deal with those kinds of problems as a 43 year old woman, so how they are supposed to get up every morning and care about their homework when they are dealing with figuring out how to get through a day with out food? I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Here’s what I do know. Telling me their stories is the bravest thing I’ve ever seen. Exposing their pain and revealing the horror of their lives to me is a gift. It’s a sacred moment. Reacting to their confessions is the most important thing I do in a day of teaching. I can’t transform their lives into lives of comfort and safety and love the way I would like to – the way they deserve. I can’t bring them all home with me, which I would like to do often. I can only listen. I can let them know that there’s one adult in this whole world who thinks that what is happening to them is wrong and should have never happened. I can let them know that my only concern is that they are OK. That they are safe. That my door is open and I will listen and hear them any time they need me to. I can let them know that I love and respect them – no matter what their grades are. The moment of connection when I can look them in the eyes and say, “I am so sorry that happened to you,” is one that I am so grateful to have.
So, when people out there say that we need to have “age appropriate” stories in YA, I don’t know what they’re talking about. If I can hand a kid, whose home life is a disaster and whose father drinks until he passes out every night, a copy of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian” so that he can see that a kid like him lived through something just like he is going through, it may be the only “therapy” he ever gets. Sexual assault, bullying, violence, abuse, and eating disorders in YA books ain’t going to drive teenagers to any emotional or mental health crisis. If they’re on the verge of a crisis, they won’t finish the book. If they’re suffering, a story told with respect for the characters and their struggles is a balm that can soothe a student’s suffering. Every time they recognize their own pain in the safe world of fiction, they make another critical connection in the world that says, “See? We’ve been there, too. It sucks, doesn’t it?” and maybe that means that they can get up the next morning and try again. If they feel a little bit less alone in the world, then I have given them truth in return for their trust and confessions. That’s what I do.
Kids need to read more books about real issues like racism, abuse, bullying, and homelessness, not fewer. They need to know they’re not alone. I am privileged enough to hear my students in person. They are lucky enough to find their own lives in the books we read.