Danny’s young parents struggled to find steady jobs and income for their family. (All names are pseudonyms for real people in a very true story.) Both parents were still dealing with the trauma and stress experienced from their own family’s relocation to the U.S.. Their families had left everything.
Danny’s family moved into a rough section of a major city, full of crime and drugs. He lived with two older siblings, Mom and Dad. Sadly, Danny’s dad (also named Danny) was violently murdered when Danny was very young. During Danny’s early years, he was told his dad was “away”.
Danny’s mother, Maria, left alone to support all three children, became despondent and desperate herself. Drinking and drugs seemed to dull her grief and stress. Her own attempts to survive financially, regretfully led to her incarceration. Danny was left without a normal relationship with either parent. After his mother was released from prison, Danny and siblings lived with Maria for a time, in a deteriorating row house in another crime-ridden neighborhood. Danny still believed his father was “away”.
All alone with Danny, his mother now confided in him that his father was not “away”, but that he had been murdered. Confusion and grief tortured Danny.
Maria was preoccupied with trying to find work and restarting her life including training at the community college. The traumas of her husband’s murder and memories of childhood violence were engulfing at times.
The older siblings had also often witnessed violence. They had a different father, who had taken custody while Maria was incarcerated. Reunited with their mother, they now bore the brunt of Maria’s frustration and stress. Danny often witnessed rage and terrifying violence between his mother and siblings, eventually leading to Maria’s decision to send them back to their dad.
Danny told me that, in his own mind, he was responsible for his separation from his siblings. He misses them both, especially his older brother.
All alone with Danny, his mother now confided in him that his father was not “away”, but that he had been murdered. Confusion and grief tortured Danny .
It was at that point, eight years of age, Danny walked into my second grade classroom. Some days, at first, he seemed resilient.
Danny could share a great, toothy smile that stretched from ear to ear. That smile that connected his ears to his always-bent-or-broken glasses. The layers of tape seemed to mangle the frames more than they helped. . .
Danny loved learning and sharing about his family’s culture. He also loved to run, sprinting, seemingly free as a bird, in those moments. Danny was a talented artist too, at times loosing track of his surroundings while he created other worlds on paper.
On his good days, it was clear that Danny’s academic ability was on par or ahead of his classmates and his street smarts were well above average. Those were precious, rare days.
Underneath Danny’s smile was a learned mistrust of adults, and refusal to attach. Danny’s mother was using alcohol again, and he’d been told (and then physically reminded) that dropping or spilling any of Mom’s alcohol would result in immediate punishment: standing naked in an extended icy-cold shower. He also hinted that “somebody’s” anger was why his glasses were broken or “lost” so regularly.
His mistrust created misunderstandings with other kids too. He spent recess alone as often as he joined in with others. Danny once told me that his favorite toy and game was “guns”… so that he would be practiced and ready when he was able to find his father’s killer…
Although Danny’s chronological age was only 8, his life was already overwhelmed with fear and loss. His hyper-vigilant scanning for any threat he might perceive in the classroom created a wall between Danny and others. Often, Danny’s traumas could be retriggered by a classmate’s slight shift in position, or the most innocent comment or look. It was impossible to anticipate.
Sometimes Danny arrived at school already triggered by events at home or along the way. When his fears were triggered, Danny could go off track quickly with a loud, nervous laugh, or an equally disruptive threat yelled to someone across our classroom. Then he would rip up his classwork, and throw his books, dump his desk, and often make a run for the hallway, with angry tears, screaming “f___ you”. His classmates watched, gripped in fear. Danny didn’t know it, but 11+ other children in the same room had similar life stories filled with trauma.
At other times, Danny kept his panic hidden, emotionally “dissociating”, maybe drawing or reading something off-topic, but experiencing the same fear state. At least twice during his dissociating, Danny quietly, but tensely broke small plastic pencil sharpeners. When confronted, he quickly put a jagged piece, on his tongue and when further approached, he swallowed. On another occasion he threatened to swallow the loose blade…
Maria was informed, and the seriousness of Danny’s state was clearly explained. Her initial responses were to claim that Danny was just having a bad day and to inflict corporal punishment at home. “It will go away”, Maria claimed.
Meanwhile, our school district did not have other spaces or adults available to allow Danny to de-escalate. I could not leave the other 25+ children to be with Danny. Our counselor was on long-term leave with no replacement. Our school was not staffed with a nurse, daily.
Danny’s story is NOT an aberration. Most of my students (6 to 10 years old) know someone who was murdered… There is about a murder a day, on average, in our city. Many of the victims have children or familes. Murder is only one trauma source. In our classroom there were at least 11 other children with 3+ categories of trauma, who were equally often triggered, often by each other.
To read more, see Peek Inside a Classroom?
Peek Inside a Classroom