Fencing Out the Wolves
Before I got involved in child protection and domestic violence response work, most of my service centered around education in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system. Running book drives for nearly-empty elementary school libraries, translating work for English Language Learners, and working to establish a student school board, I tried to hold Pittsburgh Public Schools accountable however possible. As I had understood it, kids struggled in large part because schools failed to provide adequate support, resources, and opportunities to their students. I was aware that many students show up to school with baggage that weighs on their minds, but I figured that good schooling could check that luggage. Education was the great equalizer.
I began to shed that understanding in the latter half of my senior year. When I experienced my own very minor family disruptions, I got a small glimpse into the importance of stability outside of school for success within it. Shifting residences, worrying about my loved ones, and feeling isolated made it hard to focus in school or find motivation to do my homework. My grades survived only because my peers all had senioritis, lowering the bar. As I think and read more about children raised in families many times more combative and unstable than mine, I have come to further doubt the ability of schools to single-handedly fix children’s problems. Educational innovation is essential, but it is not the only step—and maybe not even the first step—towards providing many American children with better lives.
During my Freshman Fall semester at Duke, I volunteered weekly as a tutor for English Language Learners at a local elementary school. I spent most of my time helping a third grader who spoke only Spanish. We’ll call her Silvia. Devoted to school, Silvia wanted me to translate every bit of her assignments would get frustrated when the teacher lessened her workload. For a while, Silvia was determined to get the education to which she was entitled. Towards the end of the semester, that changed. Silvia seemed less motivated, expressed discomfort with her male teacher and myself, and informed me that she would be switching schools because her mom and siblings had to move out of their house. Her particular discomfort with male figures including me seemed to signal something, and it concerned me. I pointed it out to her English instructor who agreed. That was the last I heard of her.
I don’t know her exact story—I can only assume. Silvia’s behaviors could have been the result of any of countless factors, but they are certainly common amongst victims of domestic and sexual violence. She could have just had a bad day, the teacher may actually just be tricky, or she might have just been sad to be moving. Whether or not she is truly an example of the kids I am trying to protect, the pain and discomfort she felt is certainly what I work to prevent. In that way, she still informed my belief that more is necessary for a child’s development than good schools.
Watching the quick shift in Silvia’s behavior and work ethic furthered strengthened my belief that safe, stable home life is nearly-essential for education success. J.D. Vance’s best-selling Hillbilly Elegy captures that reality. Discussing the challenges schools face, a teacher told Vance that “they want us to be shepherds to these kids but no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.” As a form of self-protection, traumatized kids often close themselves off to others, including their compassionate teachers. When we fail to put up protective fences for children, we force kids to construct the walls themselves. Though the world needs many shepherds, I feel called to protect against the wolves.
This week, I saw Silvia and her family member meeting with one of my fellow advocates at the courthouse. Her face looked familiar, but I didn’t believe it was her until she gave me the same shy-giggling smiles she always did. I noticed her on her way out, and didn’t know if it would be right to say anything other than “hola.” Brief though it was, the experience has played on repeat in my mind since.
Silvia was always the first person I thought of when I was volunteering in the Children’s Playroom in the Pittsburgh courthouse last summer, and when I began volunteering with the Durham Crisis Response Center this year. I got involved in this line of service to provide resources to children like Silvia. And here Silvia was, receiving our services. I hope that I am wrong about her and that she has not experienced any violence. If she has, I’m glad we were able to provide some help. I’m grateful to have seen that sheep safe behind our wolf-proof fence—if only for a few moments.
David Frisch is a rising junior majoring in Political Science from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is one of seven 2018 Kenan Purpose Program Summer Fellows. David is fascinated by the ethics of law, especially as they intersect with family decisions. This summer, he will be working as a court advocate at the Durham Crisis Response Center in Durham, NC.