In the 1990s, HIV was rampaging through the Bronx. This was the time before drug therapies and advancements in immunology stopped the disease from being a death sentence. At St. Raymond’s, the high school where I taught, we felt it deeply, as many of our students had parents and relatives who were living — and dying — with the disease. At the height of the epidemic, our students delivered upward of a hundred meals a week to home-bound AIDS patients in the neighboring apartment buildings.
Mark (not his real name) was a 10th-grader in my class, and many of us knew his mother was dying of AIDS. In that time before hope, once the symptoms came to light, it was only a matter of time until it was over. Mark confided in me that she had grown increasingly sicker, was home, that her days were short, and that he was most worried for his little brother Aaron (also a pseudonym).
One day I came in at my usual hour and found him standing outside my classroom in the early morning light. His face was tear-stained and his eyes were red. The expression on his face told me everything.
“She died last night,” he said, “and I had nowhere else to go. They took her to the funeral home and my uncle told me to leave while they cleaned up her room. I spent the night walking around until they opened school.”
What could I to say to that? What response could possibly take even the slightest edge off of his pain? There was no lesson plan, curriculum or training that would fully prepare me for that moment.
Yet I did learn some lessons that any of us can use to help a child in crisis.
Our presence is enough
Children are incredibly accurate lie detectors and they can tell instantly which adults care for them and which ones only pretend to. Children are drawn to adults who care, and when a child in crisis comes to you, you’ll find out that your presence, and your presence alone, is good enough for that moment. When Mark came into my classroom that day, and I gave him half of my bagel and some of my orange juice, he was there simply because he was in a safe place. There was no need to say anything, and we both knew words would be insufficient.
Kids need to know people are rooting for them
When words feel right, you should tell the child that whether they realize it or not, they’re surrounded by adults who care for and are rooting for them — that the difficulty of the moment, as insurmountable as it seems, will not be too much for them if they rely upon those who care for them. Knowing that people are in your corner, that they believe in and will support you, is incredibly effective in easing pain.
Services are built to be used
Over the years, all schools have refined their practices to offer support to students with bereavement, emotional trauma and challenging life situations. Remind the child that those services are in place for them to use, and they should feel free to “use them up.” Reinforce that adults in those roles are there because they want to help children and that no one will be inconvenienced.
Tell them it’s OK to ask for help
Many children (and adults) are reluctant to accept assistance when it is offered. Let the child know that they should continue to reach out for assistance when they feel they need it. An excellent strategy to reinforce important relationships is to take some time and walk the child around the building to meet the various people who can also help.
Trust your colleagues to lend a hand
Spend some time giving your colleagues a heads-up about the struggling child. This will help them keep the child in their thoughts, and will help them to pick up on any emotionally needy behavior. Placing more eyes on a struggling child will create an environment where many staff members can pick up the moments when the child is in need.
We all spend a lot of time talking about curriculum, lesson plans and assessments, but remember that you’re allowed to comfort and care, to give advice, and to listen as the child processes these feelings out loud. It’s not just your choice to be there — it’s your obligation.
Through the wonders of social media, I still stay in touch with Mark, and both he and his brother are doing just fine. There road hasn’t been easy and other challenges have presented themselves to them, but it’s fair to say that they live happy and useful lives. No one is as strong as a survivor.