When I was a kid, I didn’t really dream of growing up to be a Mama Bear. Being a mom seemed complicated and stressful and it would definitely take away energy from my dreams and passions and goals (I was way more right than I realized)… but as life would have it, I became the fiercest of Mama Bears. Not just for my own two kids, but for kids. All kids. Because these kids belong to all of us.
This week I spent time photographing the brand new John Schroder Early Childhood Center in Lombard. It is beautiful in every single way. The facility is clean, bright, and welcoming. The teachers, principal, and secretary are kind and love the kids. The kids respond by being happy, learning, growing, and developing friendships. I can see EXACTLY how this sort of early intervening can make a lasting impact on any little human. Having THIS as one’s first experience in public education is amazing.
But then the very same day, my 12th-grader came home from High School and told me a story:
He told me a story about a little Freshman friend of his who is on his sports team. He told me how the kid is super nice but that my son sensed the kid had problems, not learning problems or health problems, but life problems. Yesterday, three weeks into high school, this kid got into a fight during lunch. Someone said something about someone and this skinny little Mexican decked him and then continued to hit him until someone pulled him off. This happened in my marshmallow upper-middle-class community and unsurprisingly was broadcast live with commentary from every angle on Snapchat (I’m refusing to watch).
I won’t lie, I had tears before the story even ended. I was nearly in tears when the story started. I cried hearing this story because, at 14, this guy’s little life is altered forever. As a hard-core pacifist, I truly believe that fighting is almost never the answer (my 12th-grade son respectfully disagrees and said the other kid really had it coming). But this isn’t about the fight. This is about the consequences. This Freshman will most likely be kicked off the sports team. The sports team that gave him a practical outlet for this pent-up emotion, not to mention a coach, mentor, peers, lifelong relationships, laughter, hard work, healthy life habits, perspective, and sanctuary. It may have even been the place he found purpose, direction, and balance. And on top of that, with this productive emotional outlet gone, this kid is bound to snap again. And another fight like this and he is likely out of our amazing high school also. I’ve seen this kid before:
- Misses practice because he needs to watch his little brother on Saturday mornings but isn’t quite as clear with the coach as he could have been (because he is a kid with a less than stellar home life), so he gets kicked off the team
- Gets in a fight because his body and emotions and life are all out of balance, so he gets kicked off the team
- Doesn’t get the grades he needs or skips classes or ditches practice or lies, so he gets kicked off the team
- Drinks or does drugs or vapes or doesn’t have the right attitude or uses social media irresponsibly, so he gets kicked off the team
- Or worst of all, doesn’t have a Fierce (but loving) Mama Bear at home with the time, energy, and money to make sure his ass is out of bed for school and practice, even when he “forgets” to set an alarm (repeatedly), so he gets kicked off the team
Thankfully, a single poor choice (or even a series of them) doesn’t always lead to a wrecked life and sometimes those mistakes are even the catalyst for life-long positive change, but timely support and guidance are bound to make greater odds of future success. Especially because often this kid is forced to find a support network on his own, usually not family or church or clubs because they’ve failed there before. Instead, they tend to gravitate toward others who have been moved to the fringes. They band together but without a leader who can love, guide, and nurture, they become stuck in a cycle. I TRULY believe that the early childhood intervention programs are changing lives. But what can we do for our teenagers?
As with all of life, there are no easy answers. There must be standards, as much as I always side with patience and grace and kindness, we can’t have a society of youth throwing punches and vaping with abandon! and I know my Mama Beariness always gets the best of me every single time, but HOW CAN OUR COMMUNITY HELP OUR AT-RISK KIDS?! How do we support these young humans who have a home life that is stressful or who maybe aren’t the best scholastically or who lack emotional control or lack the maturity to make good choices? How do we keep kids engaged and active in groups that will guide them toward becoming amazing adults? How do we help them find their people and their outlet and their inner balance?
My Fierce Mama Bear heart is hurting and scared and the problem seems very very big and especially grave during suicide awareness month. I don’t know where to start or where to finish and honestly, I’m probably not quite done crying for these kids but then I talked to my daughter who said, “MOM!! This is not okay! You need to Mama Bear UP!” Soo…
Miscellaneous Advice, Randomness, or Minutia:
- On Monday, after thought and reflection, I will email the school administrators to start a dialogue about our policies, especially in relation to at-risk kids who don’t have an advocate
- I’m going to continue to love the kids: the hard ones, the crazy ones, and the easy ones. The ones who seem distant, cold, hurt, rejected, those who pretend to have it all together, and even the bullies.
- I’m going to help my own kids see that drugs or fights or being withdrawn or being mean do not make people “problems”. That all kids (but especially the ones labeled “problems”) need to feel included and supported and must be treated with patience, kindness, and respect.
- I’m going to listen to any kid (and hug them if they let me). Not only for their words but for their feelings. I’m going to listen with just as much interest as I did when they were a little because big kids are AWESOME and funny and smart and unique and amazing— and I can learn so much from them (not just how to make a Bitmoji or that I use the phrase “on fleek” wrong every single time).
- I’m going to make sure that every kid I encounter knows that it is never too late. That mistakes and accidents and fate will happen but it doesn’t need to be the end. We can choose to learn and grow and change and make different choices. Maybe those different choices will be a mistake too or maybe they won’t work out the way we thought they would or maybe we will get tossed yet another raw deal… But it is NEVER too late. A person is more than their mistakes.
- And mostly, I’m going to make sure kids know that this Fierce Mama Bear is here to love, not judge so if they need a sounding board, I’m a safe place to start. And although I really wish I could wizard them into a perfect life, I can’t. But I will
betheir advocate and help them find the next safe place…
As a side note for background, in a different town, last week, a senior was shot and killed at a weed deal gone wrong. This kid had been in trouble since he was a Freshman. There is no blame or regret, who knows what life brings, but this is a story that is all too common. Early intervention may have done nothing. Maybe every bit of guidance and support was implemented… but maybe, just maybe, with timely intervention, there was a program or a conversation or a person or a hug or a club or a sport or a coach or a mentor or counselor who could have changed the course of his life back when he was 14.
A friend sent me the public policy for Proviso and it is vague, but a solid start that I hope more schools will follow– because as important as metal detectors and school security is, THIS is what the world needs.
Hi! Kelly Vallicelli here! Photographer, writer, sister, mama bear, wife, selfie taker, multi-tasker, and over-thinker extraordinaire-- This is my spot to write about whatever randomness comes into my life. FB always has updated posts, but if you aren’t on social media or want an email when there is new content or just want to make me feel encouraged and supported: