We were almost through with our unit on the best selling memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, when Ismael Beah began to describe being rescued by UNICEF. I’d warn with a spoiler alert, but we’ve heard it all before: another third world child soldier story. Same in gruesomeness, different only in region. Separated from his family at the vulnerable age of twelve, he had spent months hiding from the rebels, scouring the jungles of Sierra Leone for food until he was finally captured by the government’s army for two years, where he became addicted to drugs, forced to mercilessly kill other boys his age at point blank range, and was fed a constant stream of manipulative, egotistical puffery, warping his acts of barbarity for acts of valor.

While in rehabilitation, as one might imagine, his UNICEF attendants had much on their plates. These nurses and service workers had the daunting task of restoring not only their war-torn bodies back to health, but their minds as well; both bullets and distorted ideologies had to be removed. As to be expected, these soldiers made it difficult to assist them. Despite the fact that the UNICEF workers were feeding them, clothing them, and giving them safe shelter, the former child soldiers spat at them, fought them and cursed at them for being merely civilians, untrustworthy individuals to whom they should never take orders from. The attendants helped them still, and even managed to do so with a smile.

“Why can’t all teachers be that way with us when we wild out? We deserve a pass too,” a girl in my class inquired. She had been suspended numerous times for her behavior, and although she appeared to be indifferent about it, her comment revealed otherwise.

Of course my initial reaction was bewilderment. Did my student, who lives in the United States of America, just compare herself to a boy soldier from the small village of Mogbwemo in Sierra Leone? Letting the magnitude of those words sink in, I considered it once more but this time with new eyes: My student, who lives in the United States of America, just compared herself to a boy soldier from the village of Mogbwemo in Sierra Leone. I knew we expected our students to make text-to-self connections, but damn.

Why was this so alarming? I knew the statistics. Many of our kids had survived a war of sorts. Many were living in shelters, had a parent or relative who was incarcerated, had been molested, neglected or physically abused. Many of them had lost family members to gun violence or drugs. As a result, many students were suffering mental wounds. Many had been diagnosed with depression, exhibited symptoms of PTSD, were self medicating or experienced some level of suicidal ideation.

It was also evident that many students were entering our classrooms with preconceived notions about education and their teachers from their communities, the media and/or previous negative experiences with teachers who should’ve never taught in the hood. It probably didn’t help that they had witnessed their teachers being micromanaged and excessively evaluated by administrators their entire school careers. In short, many children were falsely under the impression that education was a waste of time, and were resistant to learning from people they deemed low on the totem pole and to whom they didn’t trust.

My revelation prompted a slew of additional questions for me to reflect on.  What kind of education did these soldiers receive in order to reverse the psychological damage they had suffered? Did UNICEF rehabilitation specialists receive some kind of tolerance training to be able to handle the abuse they experienced from the child soldiers? Who were these UNICEF attendants who were able to smile even with a child’s spit on their faces? Were they outsiders or people from the community in which they served?

Immediately, I began googling, “UNICEF war relief for children” and got my answers. As I had suspected, UNICEF employees received extensive tolerance training in their field. It also appeared that some children who were severely psychologically damaged did not immediately reenroll into traditional schools, but instead were placed in transition camps to help them “adjust to peace.” And although UNICEF had first employed Western outsiders to assist in this process, it soon became clear that developing a community-based approach that trained local residents of villages affected by war was more effective in being able to handle and relate to the experiences of these suffering children.

There was no question that we were failing our students. And while most of that had to do with issues that existed outside of our jurisdiction, there was much to do about the decisions affecting school buildings. With all the programs hiring teachers who are completely out of touch, emphasis on test scores and data rather than “healing” curriculum that targets the mental and emotional needs of our children and evaluation systems that both demoralize and devalue teachers publicly while students bear witness, public education had become a joke. And while many of our students had become laughing hecklers who refused our help, by the time many graduated high school — if they graduated high school — they’d soon realize the joke was on them.

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