I was kept out of school until I was 11. I know how lockdown might affect the least fortunate kids

Content warning: This article includes descriptions of child abuse

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It was my first day of school, ever, and I was 11 years old. My father introduced me to my teacher and a roomful of my wide-eyed, vicious peers. Kids are normally cruel, but there’s a unique type of torture saved for the sixth-grader who is Black, doesn’t even know his times tables, and still wets the bed. This, along with the fact that we lived in a hotel, would prove to be a blunder punishable by three years of extreme ostracizing. But at least I wasn’t with my biological mother anymore. Her love hurt.

In my earliest memories of her, I recall a very warm, simple woman who had been brought up in the South. Beautiful, like the love child of Billy Dee Williams and Diana Ross. Her hair was thick and nappy — I’m certain I got my locks from her side of the family — and her eyes were wide, almond-shaped, full of affection. She dressed like someone from a different time period, another continent: scarves around her wrists, bright, colorful 70s-era hoop earrings, dashikis, and head wraps. I remember how well she cooked pig feet, chitterlings with hot sauce, and collard greens. She was 5ft tall and smelled of sweet cocoa butter.This was Ann Miller, my mother. But she kept me out of school, which, along with her constant physical abuse, was among the worst of her contributions to society.

My parents split when I was six, the same year you start first grade. From then until I was 11, I lived in the worst conditions in the worst places on Chicago’s South Side. My mom bypassed truancy officers by constantly moving — but then again, I’d never heard of authorities coming after parents for keeping their kids out of school in the early 90s in Chicago. If you were Black, poor, and lived in the projects, you were basically forgotten. Nobody was coming to get you if you got killed in The Hole — our nickname for the Robert Taylor Homes. The gangs saw to it that the cops stayed away.

“God’s showing you the error of your ways,” Ann informed me, as her boyfriend, Chuck, whipped and punched me in the stomach, legs, ribs. Beatings came out of nowhere, and “justice” was dealt swiftly.

“You can’t go to school ‘cuz the Holy Ghost says bad things will happen!” Ann screamed at me when I asked about accompanying some of the friends I made at the playground next to our tenement to their elementary. Ultimately, I stopped asking. But I always wondered what school would look like and which role I’d play if ever I went there. Was it like21 Jump Street? Would I be the popular kid like Zach Morris in Saved by the Bell? Did they even have schools like that rich one Will and Carlton went to on Fresh Prince or was that just make-believe? If only I could just pop my head into a school…

One day, Chuck swung a sledgehammer into my thigh. I was 11, and he was 38 and 6’6”. Luckily for me, we were staying in a dilapidated duplex at the time, with a lot of people around to hear the commotion. Someone called the cops, and I was transferred to the hospital. Life changed almost immediately. 

Hospital staff saw the bruises on my body, zigzagging lines that were a glimpse into my home life. They contacted my dad, and he and his wife — who became myreal mother in every sense of the word — gained full custody of me. I left Chicago and moved to Anaheim, California with them. Thus began my schooling career, years too late — and the bullying that came with it.

“What, are you slow or something, Alex?” A boy whom I presumed was the most popular in the class jabbed at my deepest fear. Was I? Maybe I was. All of these kids made me feel like more of an idiot each time they made some casual science reference, spoke about some historical figure I’d never learned of, or did simple arithmetic.

A chorus of laughter stung me on all sides of the class when I came to school smelling of urine: I’d tried to avoid telling my dad and stepmother I had wet the bed the night before by just coming to school in the underwear I’d soiled. Thanks to theabuse from my birth mother, I would go on to wet the bed until I was 13. Kids sometimes peed on me in between classes if they saw me at the urinal. Eventually, I learnt to just hold it in until I made it back home.

But after two years of work, and two parents who wouldn’t take my protests for an answer, I ended up on the honor roll by the end of middle school. My exceptional sixth-grade teacher, Mr Garwick, was the primary reason I ever applied myself at all. There is no way I could ever thank Mr G enough for having faith that I could make it in his class, and for taking extra steps to tutor me before and after school. I’d go onto to graduate high school on time and later finish college.

One week before she passed in late 2011, Ann left me a message. I didn’t recognize the number and hadn’t spoken to her for years. I listened to the voicemail. At this point, her voice was indecipherable. Her message sounded like a jumbled mess of guttural groans dumped into a garbage disposal and churned for one minute, 45 seconds. Her cancer, sarcoma of the throat, had progressed to the point that I didn’t know what I was hearing.

I wept.

Something I later learned was that on her deathbed, Ann Miller was visited by my parents. By that time, she’d lost too much weight. She now had a protruding jaw. She foamed at the mouth, and the disease had gnawed away at her remaining flesh, leaving a gaping hole in the face. Speaking was a luxury she would no longer enjoy. She crudely scribbled, among other things, “Thank you for putting Alex in school. You were the best parents for him.” She was right.

My story is not the same as most kids who have been kept out of school because of Covid (though it will be similar to some of them.) But I can’t help but worry about the long-term effects their stint outside education will have on them. Some, like me, will have gone back to abusive or neglectful homes in lockdown. Some may never be allowed to return to the education system or will slip through the cracks. 

Although a timeline exists, no one can predict the end of this pandemic.  I missed some of the most important years of schooling, and somehow, with the support of many and a strong dose of determination, still managed to overcome. But how many can be that fortunate? And should we take the risk that kids can catch up like I did? The CDC and UN don’t seem to think so.

Twenty-five years later, I still have nightmares. I have PTSD because of my mistreatment as a kid. I don’t feel equipped to have my own children. 

Oftentimes, teachers are the first line of advocacy for children who have tough home lives, and face-to-face time is vital for them to realize and diagnose what’s happening. Domestic abuse has spiked during this pandemic, and with over 3 million K-12 American students who have just fallen off the grid, there should be much cause for concern.

We are in an age, right now, where adults may be more of a hinderance to their children’s natural childhood development than almost any time in history. It’s time to stop playing roulette with our children’s futures and to allow them back to school. Because my hope is the future will be bright for children affected by lockdowns that keep them away from their classes — but there’s plenty reason for me to have my doubts.

If you’re affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, go to the National Child Abuse website, or call 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453)

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