My Childhood Home Was Not Safe. Like Me, Some Children Need Brick-and-Mortar Schools Right Now.

Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked for over 20 years supporting mostly charter community schools in Oakland, New Orleans and New York City,

The most terrifying and dangerous experiences I had as a child were at home.  I am not alone.  My mother battled demons, and heard voices, including those telling her to kill her child.  An innocent game of hide and seek turned into a terrifying game of hide or die.  And I hid for hours in a dark unfinished part of our basement. 

That was during summer break. 

As bad as those episodes were.  It was much worse after her stroke.

I was supposed to live with my father and his wife.  That house wasn’t physically dangerous, but it would tear your soul apart and grind you into dust.  Any night could be some drunken tirade, my dad would shirk away as his wife tore into me.  Life was not a box of chocolates, but you never know what you would get.  You knew you were a problem and imposition.  This woman was trying to crush me.

I spent most of the next year staying at my empty mom’s house.  I told them I was staying at friends’ houses, and they accepted that.  They didn’t want me around and out of sight out of mind.  Those were unsupervised times at age 15 or so.  I threw parties to make money, which never quite paid out, but I mastered the can game.

I would return the empties for money, and the store would just dump them in a dumpster.  I would jump in with garbage bags and pull out bags of cans and return them again.  They would look at me kind of crazy at the store.  This teenager with garbage bags full of cans.  But that is how I survived.

I also had a friend who worked the returns, so we would pad the count and share the profits.  He also started wheeling out beer and frozen dinners through the back door when he did the garbage.

At that point I was pretty much living on egg sandwiches at home and what I got at school.  That was before the good days when I had my job at Wendy’s.

I did a lot of stupid and dangerous things in those years.  And while I didn’t really like school, it was an anchor, and particularly sports were a respite. 

I loved my mom’s house.  But it was dangerous at times, and really confusing at others.  I hated my father’s house.  And I would sleep on a floor, in a car, or couch or really anywhere to avoid that place.

So I wonder about these kids stuck at home.  Child abuse calls are down, I understand.  But I don’t think that is because there is less abuse in this highly stressed time.  It’s because less people see it.

During this pandemic, I think schools should be closed.  But, some kids need them to be open.  They need a physical building to go to.  They need to see someone who cares about them.  The home is the most likely place where abuse and violence of differing types take place.  We know this.  Yet that is where they are, stuck, if they are young.  Or most likely if they are older, they are just out, doing stupid stuff that kids do.   Like I would have been.

Whenever I tell my stories to kids there are always a couple that I recognize in the mirror.   They look at me different, they are going through something, and they want to talk to someone who “made it.”  The first rule of a broken home is not to tell anyone, especially if you are Black.  They never talk about what is going on per se, but usually ask if I am coming back.

There are no easy answers right now.  But I think we need to be asking the right questions.  And that should start with how are the children?   And particularly the most vulnerable ones. 

Some of them really need us right now, and as far as I can tell we aren’t answering the call, or even listening for the phone.

What do you think?

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