Students have real-life problems too

The start of a new school year inevitably brings a new round of hand-wringing and finger-pointing. Test scores are too low. Classes are overcrowded; facilities falling apart. The budget is inadequate, and standardized curriculums are woefully irrelevant. The Los Angeles Unified School District should be broken up; bureaucrats must be accountable; taxpayers need to know how their money is being spent.

But for most teachers, as they trundle back to school after summer vacation, these concerns are rarefied and remote.

A friend sent me an e-mail the other day. He teaches third grade at a public school in San Bernardino County, and as he was getting ready for the start of a new year, he found tucked into a folder a note that he had scribbled to himself in the middle of a previous school year.

The words were inspired by one of the more mundane bits of class management, but as he began the work, the reality of the task began to sink in.

Here I am -- another month of teaching gone by -- contemplating our school’s monthly awards: Perfect Attendance, Outstanding Citizen, Outstanding Scholar, Superior Writer, Great Reader. . . [and] all I can think of is: How about an award for Psychological Survivor, Emotional Duress Survivor? In other words, awards for just coping with life.

When my friend wrote his note, he was teaching a class of 30 fifth-graders, and it was easy for the lives of the students, whom he had slowly gotten to know, to overshadow any consideration of monthly achievement. Here are a few of his descriptions:

* A girl who was once locked in a dark closet for eight hours by a baby sitter. The child talked longingly of her dad, who was in prison;

* A girl who was sexually abused at a very young age and taught to steal money from purses at age 2;

* A girl still coping with her grandmother’s near-fatal car accident. She brought in newspaper clippings of the accident along with some shaved hair from her grandmother;

* A boy with facial anomalies who had endured several surgeries. He was constantly teased, yet he delighted students by blowing milk bubbles through his nose;

* A girl who helped care for her single mother, a quadriplegic, and who listened to her distant father make promises he never kept.

Such stories must be difficult enough to hear, let alone assuage, and as I went through his list, which went on and on with similar stories, I imagined each confession -- the child blurting out his story or playing for sympathy, the parent-teacher conference, the school secretary delivering the news -- and I had to remind myself that my friend does not teach in a special class for troubled children. This was a class of typical fifth-graders.

Here -- and elsewhere, in classrooms across America -- some form of psychological trauma in children’s lives trumps whatever cards educators and politicians are trying to play. Some of the trauma is the result of poverty, to be sure. In my friend’s district, for instance, three-quarters of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and in his note he described gang stories and tales of parental drug abuse and violence.

But poverty is only part of the problem, which is really more about the complicated existences that all children lead. So why do politicians and school boards spend so much time discussing budgets and testing and oversight and accountability?

No doubt they are easier to talk about than the emotional lives of children who are often left to struggle by themselves (or, if they are lucky, with a teacher) through matters of grief, abuse, divorce and special needs. It’s no wonder then that so many teachers feel that what they are up against on a daily basis is often ignored.

When I asked my friend how he managed to keep from being quickly overwhelmed, he wrote back, “I feel that I make a difference in the children’s lives. I’m energized by their mere presence, their energy and enthusiasm, their excitement in learning.”

And now the new year has begun. The kids are back, lining up outside his door.

A few days after school opened, my friend described his first day: parents with separation anxiety; others just as happy not to see their kids for another 10 hours. Some kids with ADHD; one who read all the Lemony Snicket books over the summer. One girl wondered how to spell “he” in the year’s first spelling test. Also, the laminating machine broke, the school librarian moved away and pigeons took to nesting in the eaves.

Soon enough the confessions will begin, as they do every year. Attendance, citizenship and even reading and writing seem quaint in comparison.

Thomas Curwen is an editor at large for The Times.