Lessons learned from an inner-city teenager

The big building loomed in front of me. Hundreds of high school students milled around outside waiting for the bell to ring so they could enter the building. I wedged my way past the crowds. I was trying to get in before the swarm of students began their descent.

I couldn’t help noticing the various groups of teenagers and the way they were clustered. There were the stereotypical groups – the blond haired jocks with their sperrys, laughing, casually brushing their hair out of their eyes. The African-American guys with Nikes and football jackets, throwing a ball around. The dark-haired Hispanic girls, giggling with headphones. The skateboarding guys with long hair, maybe some Acne and a skateboard in their arms. And then there were the non-stereotypical groups – the mixture of kids of different cultures sitting around playing guitar, throwing footballs, listening to music on their headphones, giggling, flirting, laughing, teasing…

The school couldn’t be more different than the high school that I attended as a teenager – a Bais Yaakov high school with around 250 ninth through twelfth grade students – all girls from relatively similar backgrounds. But here I was working as a Speech/Language pathologist (SLP) in a public high school of approximately 3500 students in a very diverse ethnic, cultural and religious population. As I contemplated this, I squeezed past the students, nodding hello every once in a while, dodging a football that almost hit me, and finally making it into the building.

My basic job description is helping the students improve their communication skills. Working with teenagers to learn more effective ways to communicate with peers, teachers and parents lends itself to very interesting sessions. Most days I come home with some kind of story, some eye-opening experience. I am often saddened by stories of these students’ lives, overwhelmed by hardships people live with. But I am also often inspired in very profound ways by the deepness of the human soul, by the spark of kindness in every living being.

Today I was thinking about one girl in particular – a new student I had recently begun to see and the spark of hope she made me feel. Many of the students that I worked with seem so lonely. Sometimes it was due to their disabilities, sometimes it was due to where they lived. Sometimes, I felt like it was just a sign of the times. Living in neighborhoods that are not “communities” with no friends within walking distance, they often would spend weekends alone. A lot of their time seemed to be devoted to playing video games. Many of them liked to think they just needed a lot of money and then life would be easy. And many of them seemed sad.

A few weeks ago, I began to see a new girl named Keiara*, a senior with a severe stutter that came with non-verbal repetitions, too. This means that when she tried to talk, she made a clucking sound before she even began to stutter. It was painful to listen to her talk. But as she talked and as I listened, I grew unusually inspired.

She talked about her life – her drive to succeed. She talked about how she got into college despite a learning disability and was looking forward to attending. She played the flute in the school band and had become a senior band leader, a pretty impressive feat in a school of 3500 students.

Now that she had gotten her acceptance letter to college, she was practicing for an interview to get into the college band. As I met with her weekly, I began to see something about her that was different than most students I would meet with. She seemed alive and invigorated. She struck me as a person whose life had meaning. There was something unusual about her. When I finished meeting with her, I always felt inspired and more excited about living in general.

I made my way up to the second floor and unloaded my bags in my small closet-like room that serves as my speech therapy office. I decided that during today’s session with Keiara, I would try to find out her secret – what made her different.

The day went by. Finally, I went to pick up Keiara from her classroom to let her know it was time for her session. We went back to my office and sat down, ready to practice different strategies to decrease her dysfluencies. She worked really hard, as usual. As the session drew to an end, I made my move. I told her how she seemed different to me than most teenagers that I worked with. They often seemed self-focused and sad. But she seemed happy and driven. Like a breath of fresh air. Her life wasn’t easy – she had limited money, she lived with a single mom, she didn’t know her dad, she had a severe stutter and she had a significant learning disability. So what was her secret?

She looked at me and smiled. “click, click, click, w…w…w…well,” she began (I had gotten good at ignoring the significant dysfluencies and I blocked them out of my head. Although the rest of her words were filled with clicking noises and repetitions, I only heard the message.) “to begin with, I am very close to my mom. We talk every night. My mom teaches me how to be happy. We do stuff together every weekend.”

Beautiful, I thought to myself. So maybe it was the close relationship with her mother? But she wasn’t finished explaining.

“Every weekend, me and my mom go to homeless shelters and spend a few hours helping out. My mom teaches me that being happy comes from helping others.”

And there you have it. It’s a simple truth. But so easily forgotten in the every day grind of life. As we constantly struggle to make money, to pay bills, to acquire things, or to dream about the things we wish we could afford, we so often forget that it’s the giving that really brings happiness.  Keiara was such a happy person, because she was focused on what she could give other people, not what she was lacking. I suddenly had an urge to go home and take my kids to a homeless shelter. Keiara reminded me that the greatest gift I can give my kids is to teach them that true happiness will come from giving not getting.

POSTCRIPT: Keiara is currently a freshman, attending college. She is not sure of her major yet – either education or law enforcement. She wants to help kids – either by teaching in a school or by helping “delinquent kids” get back on track. She is minoring in music and plays on her college’s marching band.

*not her real name

About the Author
Rochelle Garfield is a speech/language pathologist, photographer and dyslexia lecturer. When she has free time, she enjoys running and inline skating. She lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and six awesome kids. She is the author of the award winning novel, OUT OF THE SHADOW.