Whatever our backgrounds, most of us were called into this field hoping to make a difference in others’ lives. In my case, the call came from the experience of learning how much of a difference attention and caring can make to a struggling child.
In the middle of the night, when I was eight years old, I woke to find my mother dead in bed beside me. She’d overdosed and rolled on top of my baby sister, who was shrieking. I remember struggling to pull her off my sister and trying to shake her awake. When she didn’t rouse, I pressed my tiny fingers against her grown-up wrist to find a pulse—something a concerned neighbor had just taught me how to do. I knew instantly that she was gone.
My mother, the daughter of a teen mom, had her first of five children at 20. She was just 33 when she took her own life. Her death followed that of her boyfriend, who’d been murdered while she was pregnant with my sister. Before she died, my mother’s depression was deepening, and my siblings and I were in an extreme state of neglect: either not going to school at all or showing up unkempt. The roaches that had taken over our house would sometimes crawl out of my book bag and into the classroom.
After my mother’s funeral, three of my siblings and I moved in with our biological father, a man who’d physically and emotionally abused her. I’d felt utterly alone and isolated—thinking this couldn’t be happening to anyone else—but the truth was we lived in a poor, North Philly neighborhood, where much of my family’s story wasn’t particularly unusual. Fortunately, my third-grade teacher, Ms. Smith, had lots of experience with kids like me over the years.
I’ll never forget the day she stopped class and had my classmates present me with a box of crayons and a coloring book. She didn’t know all the details of what was going on with me, just that my mom had died. Nevertheless, this small gesture was a turning point in my life. I held onto that book for as long as I could, and I used those crayons until they wore down to their nubs. The gifts were my reminder that even though I was going through hell, people cared. And I’d certainly never expected a teacher, of all people, to care as much as Ms. Smith.
As an urban school psychologist who’s worked in poor neighborhoods, I’ve seen time and time again that what Ms. Smith did—make me feel seen and give me badly needed hope at a pivotal time—is what so many kids need today to handle the struggles they face.
In the five years I’ve spent in the school system, I’ve met a lot of kids growing up in difficult circumstances and on the verge of making the kinds of bad decisions that could lead them to a life a lot like my mother’s. I’ve tried not only to be their Ms. Smith, but also to show others how they can offer that kind of caring presence to the kids they work with.
Tell Your Truth to Kids
In my role as a school psychologist, I evaluated a lot of kids for emotional disturbances and learning disabilities. But even in those short mandatory sessions, I made sure the boys and girls I saw felt my love and care. I found it gratifying that after that initial connection, many continued to drop by my office to hang out or say hi.
Many of those kids were going through traumatic events similar to what I’d experienced as a child, like three teenage girls who started coming to see me regularly at lunchtime a few years ago. As we sat around and ate, I found myself becoming their mentor, making them feel understood and appreciated, and giving them advice on how to stay focused on a positive future. This inspired me to start a mentoring group for young girls called Frankford’s Finest Females (they attended Frankford High School).
It began a few years ago as a weekly afterschool program, where girls would often pull me aside to share what they were struggling with in their lives. After a while, as we began to discuss these difficult issues as a group, their limited view of the possibilities in their lives became clear. It was tough for them to envision a world beyond their current realities. For instance, when one girl asked if I received food stamps and I said no, she thought I was lying. All the adults she knew received them, she insisted. We moved on, but the conversation wasn’t over for her. A few days later, she asked me about it again. When I took the time to explain that receiving government assistance wasn’t an inevitable path in life, and that I’d gone to school for many years to avoid living that way, I saw a light come on in her eyes.
I think it took a living example of someone who’d created change in her own life to help this young girl understand that food stamps didn’t have to be her only option. People didn’t need to be defined by the traumas they’d experienced; I was a living example of that, too. But at that point, I still felt that as a professional I needed to observe the unwritten rule of not getting too personal and sharing what I’d gone through growing up.
Then all that changed one day at an annual school assembly I put together, called Black Girl Magic, to highlight the work of black female pioneers. As it happened, that year’s assembly coincided with the release of a book I’d contributed to called Black Therapists Rock, in which I’d told the story of my childhood for the first time. Knowing it would soon be easily googled and available for anyone to read, I decided this assembly was going to be different: I was going to tell the truth about how much I’d had to overcome to get to where I was in life. After all, I thought, what better way to show the kids I worked with that healing was possible?
I was nervous, but the young girls in my mentor group had shown me that kids need someone caring and authentic to relate to, not just another adult in their lives telling them what to do. So I got up in front of the audience, took a deep breath, and in a shaky voice started my story at the beginning, with my mom and all her struggles. When I was done, some students in the audience were crying. A few came up to me afterward and hugged me, saying things like, “Miss, I didn’t know” and “I’m going through some of that stuff, too.” In the months that followed, my relationships with them deepened and grew, as it did with teachers and staff in the school. It turned out that instead of getting in trouble for breaking that unwritten rule, I got praise and gratitude.
My story’s now out there for everyone to see, and I’ve seen the impact it can have in giving kids a bigger picture of what’s possible for them. My mother was a young mom, as was her mother before her, with no awareness of how passing on the legacy of intergenerational trauma keeps people trapped in poverty and despair.
I’ve grown passionate about helping teen girls avoid the kinds of choices my mother and grandmother made. And I’ve realized that I can help more of them if, beyond counseling kids in school, I can raise awareness among teachers and other school staff of how they too can make a difference. So that’s what I’ve been doing, traveling around to schools across the country.
Before they work with me, many of the teachers have little understanding of children’s emotional needs and how to help them succeed in life, not just on academic tests. Most have never even heard of the ACE study and the long-term effects that adverse childhood experiences have on people’s physical and mental health. To help these teachers better connect emotionally with kids, I encourage them to be real about their own life experiences. That’s why I always start my trainings by sharing the story of how I broke through my silence about my past—and the difference it made for the students I’ve worked with.
Even though I’m not at their school anymore, I still meet every Wednesday with some of the girls from my mentor group—only now, we meet at my house. Neither my grandmother nor my mother finished high school, and I want to make sure these girls don’t fall into that cycle. As we munch on breakfast burritos, pizza, spaghetti, and other meals I prepare—and as my own younger children pop in and out of the kitchen—I talk to them about their dreams for the future and how to make them come true. I tell them, don’t let your current circumstances define the life you envision for yourself.
I may be only six years into my career and still have a lot to learn, but I know one thing for sure: doing this work is my calling.
Nicole Thompson, Ed.S, is a certified school psychologist, a contributor to the Black Therapists Rock anthology, and the founder of Reverse the Adverse, a trauma-competent training program for schools. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.