Helping troubled children

Shannon Stoval ‘03
Natrona County School District

I feel that I have grown and learned more than any child who I helped with math, reading or spelling. During the 70s and 80s, Casper, WY boomed due to the oil fields surrounding it. That boom is now just a distant memory left lingering because of the abundance of unused equipment on the outskirts of town.

Sagebrush has once again taken its rightful place in this dry land. The green grass of the baseball park is no longer distinguishable. The majority of this residential area is reserved for trailer parks fitting the economic needs of many families in Bar Nunn. Many yards look like old junkyards dotted with cars, parts, tires and even old refrigerators. However, realizing that this is the playground for many of the kids I work with, I quickly fall into a more somber mood.

At noon, I leave Bar Nunn and arrive at Evansville one of two suburbs of Casper. Evansville is infamous for many of the evils in Casper - drugs, abuse, etc.

I pass a house utilizing old locker doors for a fence; another house has an old car in the yard. Another house reminds me of a compound with its windows boarded up and with red spray paint marring the front. On reaching my destination, I notice that the schools, though in the poorer parts of town, are well funded and in good condition. Both Evansville and Bar Nunn schools are equipped with excellent computer labs, teachers, libraries, and texts. Art, music, and physical education are parts of the curriculum. The difference between these schools compared to those in more affluent areas lie within the students and their families.

The Bar Nunn kindergarten teacher remarked to me that only two of her eighteen students had a “good” homelife. Bar Nunn includes a pre-school for “at-risk” children. The children are tested for recognition of letters, colors, foods, knowing the days of the week. The goal of this pre-school is to catch children up to where they should be upon entering kindergarten. Several children, advanced for their age, in the pre-school serve as peer mentors. The differences between the two groups are alarming.

Meaghan, a peer mentor, could almost read Zoo Book magazines while others had clearly never been exposed to reading before. Mark, a four year old, still could not recognize the front of the book or if it was upside down or right side up. One student at Evansville elementary who was having difficulties, showed up for a parent-student-teacher conference while the parent did not, which showed the lack of parental responsibility prevalent among these children.

It was never more apparent to me how much these children had to deal with than at Challenge Day. Challenge Day is an event put on for the sixth graders from Evansville, a school from a poor area and Verda James, a school from an affluent, thriving neighborhood. Challenge Day intends to give these children a chance to bond before they are thrown together in junior high.

In an emotional activity, coordinators ask all teachers and students to stand on one side of a basketball court. A coordinator reads a series of statements to which, if the statement is applicable, each student is asked to walk across the gym to the opposite line and turn around. It starts with basic statements about hair color, sports, etc. but progresses to statements involving race, abuse, violence and other deeply personal issues. It was remarkable to witness what some of these kids have been through.

I watched eleven and twelve-year-olds walk across the gym, turn and look you in the eyes having experienced incredible circumstances. Some had witnessed someone being killed, some had been awaken by gunshots and some had been abused. I watched children walk across the line in response to statements such as “have you often slept in someone else’s house because a parent is too drunk/drugged to drive home”, or “have you been kept awake by a party that your parents were having”. The students consoled one another, held hands and were truly there for one another.
I taught a math class called “Math You Can Bank On” in which most of the work involved motivating sixth graders. I collected homework packets only to find that many students had done little of the work. The kids were apathetic and some did not even hand in their packets. One girl made excuses that she “forgot”, to which I promptly gave a lecture about how junior high teachers would expect assignments to be handed in on time.

Growing increasingly frustrated, I made a journal of my feelings toward the students.

4-24-99 - “I was determined to be patient with Shelby. The child refused to talk. I tried to outlast her, needless to say, she got the best of me and we moved on to another activity.”

As opposed to teaching, I actually found an area of education in which I excelled and which I truly enjoyed in the BASS (Behavioral and Social Skills) classroom at Bar Nunn. There children experienced various problems from psychosis to severe attention problems. Another journal entry reflected the difference in my attitude toward these special education students.

5/9/00 - “These little guys do their best for you; they want to please you. These children are faced with a long and difficult journey, but at least they are trying.”

Laurie Fedje, the head teacher in the BASS classroom, helped me through my experience in the schools. A teacher assistant gave a child a warning for coloring a cat blue (as blue was not a legitimate color for cats). I though this stifled creative thinking. Laurie Fedje explained that by making rules demanding “reality” coloring, the effectiveness of medicines could be observed. If a child is medicated for psychosis and begins to color a cat purple, while believing it is brown, the teacher can see that it is time for more medication.

There was an instance in which a boy was diagnosed as being psychotic, although it was suggested that his mother, also psychotically diagnosed, was thought to be the problem. If the child insisted that he did not set the house on fire, his mother could have made the whole situation up.
In another case, a very bright 5-year-old was isolated from a regular classroom setting. It became apparent that his home life was in tatters. Laurie Fedje commented that the only chance that this child had was the hope that the courts ruled in favor of adoption.

A quote from Laurie Fedje’s personal files on her own philosophy of education made an impact on me: “We cannot quit because what we see hurts us. Quitters cannot help change a life.” My memories of this experience are clouded with the frustrations of apathetic children, uninvolved parents and situations beyond my control. However, shining through this Cloud are the smiles of Cody (a boy in the BASS classroom) and his twinkling blue eyes; Natalie’s complacency when she was being read a story; and big, tough Calub’s tears when he climbed too high on the monkey bars and needed help getting down.

These are coupled with the immense respect I gained for the sixth graders of Evansville on their Challenge Day; the bittersweet emotion of seeing Shelby’s completed story which caused me so much frustration; and with Isabelle’s disappointment when she learned I would not be able to attend her birthday party. The school showered me with gifts and thanks at the end of the year. It truly was an excellent learning experience. Thank you DPCS for this opportunity to help children. I feel that I have grown and learned more than any child who I helped with math, reading or spelling.