The greatest tragedy in this life isn’t the silence that we keep–there can be magic in the quiet. The greatest tragedy is how we ignore each other. Ignore our children, our parents, our spouses. How much more could we become if we only treated every person we came into contact with as if they were the most important person to ever cross our path?
When I returned to the little East Saint Louis school that I worked at and loved so much a few weeks ago, I got a good look at the current group of students populating the halls and classrooms of the learning facility. In the scope of one year, things had changed. Kids had changed. There were new faces, and this is a great thing. There were also old faces, little bundles of joy running toward me from down the other ends of the halls, shouting my name. It filled my soul with such joy, such love. As I passed out hugs, as I was nearly trampled by eighth graders trying to get their arms around me before anyone else could, I noticed a few (to me) gaping holes in the halls of the school. Where were some of the students I cared about so much? Where had they disappeared to? Of the sixteen first graders I worked so closely with just a year ago, only 6 were in the third grade classroom when I walked in. Six. I felt like I was arriving late to a yard sale and so many important pieces of the set of furniture I was hoping to snag had already been scooped up and toted away by other people. Dang! What happened?
Life happens. Private school is expensive. Life throws you curve balls.
I stepped into the school psychologist’s office briefly to speak with her after a few hours. We did the whole ‘catching up’ thing that is required of adults and then, of course, I began to inquire about the missing students. One boy in particular had made a lasting impact on me while I was a staff member at the school. Other faculty members had made note after just the second day of school of how he had “latched onto me.” Within a week, he was more often referred to as “my son” than by his first name.
Would you keep your son in line please, Mr. Matthew?
He was a jittery little guy. Holy cow, it was hard to get him to focus. But we managed. We were pals from the beginning. It was my time with him throughout the school year, particularly in the fall, that helped redirect my thinking. After my first week, a piece of my e-mail I sent to my coordinators about how the job was going looked like this:
To put it simply, I love this job. When I began working here on Monday I knew almost right away that I was not only in a special place, but in the right place. Over the course of the last two weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, trying to figure out exactly what path I’m on and what path I’m supposed to be on, and I just keep coming back to the idea that I need to remain open and just see where the road leads me…Now, I feel renewed and alive all over again. On Wednesday afternoon I walked into the first grade classroom and a group of kids collectively through their arms into the air and screamed, “YAY!” It was then, I knew this was good, I knew this placement was right, and I knew I needed to be here.
This is the kind of power the little guys I would go on to work with for one full school year drummed up in me. So where did my son go? What happened to him? No one knew the direct answer to these questions, but the psychologist dropped one word on me that dunked me head first into the well of sadness that so many who live in poverty experience: Ignored.
It’s tough to raise a family anywhere in the world. How much more difficult is it to do when you’re strapped for cash and trying to make ends meet? You’re overworked. You’re under paid. You’re exhausted. How do you find the time to give your multiple children the attention they deserve, that they need?
And so there you have it, the thought that swirled around in my mind for a good long time. And then, obviously, the rush of other stuff that follows:
- Why do we ignore each other?
- How do we remedy this?
- What sort of an impact is this having on our children now?
- What will happen to society in general in the future if we keep ignoring our kids?
- How did we get here? Why are we putting things, jobs, other crap ahead of our so-called loved ones?
- What IS this madness!?
And my answer for you, all I’ve got to say after a 15-hour drive pandering this sucker, is that it’s a tragedy. There are some sad, scary, horrible things in this world. Many of these things stir up emotions in me. But there may not be anything more tragic than watching a six-year-old try to get his father’s attention as his old man flips around on his smart phone.
Can we remedy this? Yes. With GIGANTIC BABY STEPS. Yes, I know, that’s an oxi-moron, but it makes sense. We’ve got to start moving in the right direction even if that means moving slowly. And, these little steps will ultimately be monumental. A little more eye contact, a little more conversation, a little more effort.
I suppose, at the end of the day, and I can only speak for myself, I don’t want to look out at a sea of empty faces. I don’t want to be raising kids in a world where we struggle to find the guts to glance up from our phones. I don’t want to know what a hollow generation would look like. By giving each other attention, by taking the time to ask each other about our days and then, more importantly, how we are doing (which ultimately puts us on the path of tapping into who we are) I believe we’ll slowly start moving in the right direction. But it starts with eye contact. It starts with loving the people around us. It begins now, with every person you encounter. It begins with looking the check-out boy in the eye, smiling, dropping him a few extra lines to break up his routine. Give him something to think/feel twice about as you walk away. It doesn’t matter how weird it makes you feel the first few times around. Eventually, it’s bound to become as normal as ignoring each other is today.
What do you say? Are you ready to avert this tragedy with me?