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COMMENTARY: A Relationship With A Child Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

Story Catchers group helps teens reconnect with their parents.

The field trip I went on Saturday with the Conflict Resolution Crew offered some insight into education and our social problems.

About 20 kids, mine included, hopped on a bus and went to the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville, Illinois to watch 20 girls perform a play. This wasn’t just any play; this performance was their collective experience as teenagers directed by Story Catchers Theatre and the focus was on what landed them in the detention facility. Their stories were compelling. Some of the girls had been incarcerated at the facility two, three, and four times – not necessarily because they committed new crimes, but because they may have violated the conditions of their release. The girls had experiences with abuse, violence, homelessness, and poverty. And their parents had been invited to see the play, but this was no 'gotcha' type of play.

The play was brutally honest about their children’s issues – no one was let off the hook – not the parents, not the children, not the institution. And as these youth (who were between the ages of 14 and 20) performed, I watched the metaphorical door open between these parents and their children. I felt their sadness, frustration and anger. But I also witnessed their joy in watching their children accomplish something positive, of watching their children realize that something right could come out of something so wrong and that there was hope.

Did the play fix everything? No. But it connected these parents and teens in such a way that healing could begin and a place where the warmth of hope could crack the icy feeling of betrayal.

Before the performance started, I sensed tension from the audience. I noticed a woman and a man seated in the front row. You could see the tension in his body, his arms were folded across his chest, his gaze was fixed straight ahead, and his eyebrows were furrowed down.  His wife kept her coat on. She had a tired and fearful look on her face of what was about to come. Later, I told this to Nancy Gibson, the director of Case High School’s CRC group: “Sure, they were all thinking ‘I’m about to get screwed.’ They thought they were going to be blamed for everything.”

But this couple’s daughter didn’t do that to her parents. And as the story unfolded, you could see their anger and fear give way to joy and pride. At one point, the mother mouthed the words, “That’s my baby.” And the couple wept as they watched their child give voice to her problems and they listened to her take responsibility for her actions.

After the show, another inmate talked about how much she wanted her parents there, but they didn’t come.

“As much as I did want them here, I realize now that I got to understand that I wasn’t doing this for them," she said. "I wanted to show them I had changed, but I realized I wasn’t changing for them. I was changing for me.”

This statement, this profound insight and painful reality brought her (and us) to tears.  And as she wept, a number of people (I included) made a point to tell her how good of a job she did.

And another inmate talked about how she could relate to her character, whose cousins were shot to death in front of her, because she too had watched two of her boyfriends get shot to death.

And one mom, whose 15-year-old daughter had admitted to being lazy and addicted to crack, stood up and said how proud she was that she had watched her child finish something she had set out to do.

During the play, I realized that these children carried an incredible amount of pain, guilt and fear with them. They weren't bad kids, they just needed help.

As I watched these beautiful reunions unfold, I couldn’t help but think that when we talk about education, we don’t think of children like this and we should think of them if we expect them to learn. We need to understand how to bring parents and children together again because parents have become so disconnected from their children and as a result, the streets take them.

We cannot afford to allow that to continue.

When people are in such desperate places, they do desperate things. We forget to see them as children who have dreams and aspirations, and we treat them as the symptom of their problems, not their actual problems. What do I mean by this? We need to understand that people on the streets make a compelling argument for not getting an education. Why? Because getting an education doesn’t make your dad stop beating on your mother, doesn’t put food on your parents table at night, or make your brother stop stealing from your neighbor because he wants to buy some weed. It doesn’t make your tooth stop hurting when you have no dental insurance, your belly stop hurting when you haven’t eaten or your mom any less angry when she can’t make rent that month.

So that's where we need to start -- making a better argument for leading an educated life with a directed purpose. It doesn't have to mean going to a four-year college, but it does mean trying to understand that the problems you are experiencing are worth fixing.

And if we really want to pay less in taxes, we need to use our jails less, our police less, and our hospitals less. And if we want successful schools so that they can get a job, then we need to help put families back together.

Why? Because that’s someone’s baby, that’s someone’s child and unless we want the streets raising him or her; then we need to get them connected again or connect with these children ourselves.

Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) November 14, 2011 at 01:40 PM
Exactly! Wow ... just reading your account of the afternoon got me a little misty. But practically speaking, you hit the point just right. Less taxes means using services less and how do we do that? By helping connect kids to their future, actions made even more critical when that connection doesn't start at home. We make sweeping statements about change this or that, deny or penalize the parents, but are we thinking about the kids? Sure, some of "this or that" can make sense for adults who've not yet brought kids into the world, but there are children here who need us now. What about them?
Marge November 14, 2011 at 02:40 PM
I agree with Heather....Wow! You wrote a very nice article! It seems so obvious, use less to lower taxes. I just wonder how this can be accomplished? Lately, we've all heard about all the break-ins, robberies in Racine. It seems to me, that it is just a matter of time before that starts heading into "our" neighborhood. How can this cycle be stopped?
Gary Kunich November 14, 2011 at 03:09 PM
I am confused by your statement that education doesn't stop the ills of the street -- the beatings, the drug use, the stealing, etc. Maybe that is how the child on the street feels, but the reality is education is a chance for THOSE children to break the cycle of abuse and neglect. In Kenosha, the Unified School District has numerous options to help children, but ultimately it is up to them. Some don't take advantage even with the most supportive of parents. I would agree it is much more difficult when mom and dad are crack addicts. We need these children who are incarcerated to go speak in middle schools to change people's mindsets. We need community groups who are willing to fix their community, and we need people willing to donate time and money to give people a different path.
Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) November 14, 2011 at 03:35 PM
@Gary - I understand your confusion, but I think what Denise was saying is that we tout education as a kind of fix-all when the reality is that being in school won't stop all that bad stuff from happening right now so there's a disconnect. As in, why should I do well in algebra if my mom is still always so mad or my dad lost his job anyway? We need to reconnect these kids to the doors that open when you have an education so that even if during the process life isn't changing, eventually it will.
Heather Rayne Geyer November 14, 2011 at 05:35 PM
Very nice article!! When I talk about education, sex ed, programs and my willingness to pay more in taxes - these are the exact people I have in mind...the kids who need the extra help do to circumstances beyond their control. They weren't asked to be born into this. When I am pounding my fists about funding cuts, classroom sizes and sex ed...it isn't for my own kids. I KNOW they have parents who will guide them. But many of these kids do not. It really is about thinking of the other children...not just your own.
Sandy November 19, 2011 at 01:36 PM
This CRC class is something that should be started at every level of our RUSD schools, not just Case HS. Nancy has done an AMAZING job of not only being the brainchild of this program, but exposing the participants to many of these types of plays and events to help the CRC kids understand just how important their mission is in reaching kids. It also helps the participants to understand their own relationship issues and parental problems and how they can change and make a difference in their own lives and others. RUSD wanted to cut this program last year - we need to have a voice now and let them know this program not only needs to stay but be expanded out. It is the only way these kids dealing with these types of issues will understand that education and helping each other really will stop these vicious cycles. The interim superintendent is saying this is all about the kids - well, lets prove that!

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