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Holiday Stories We May Not Hear

While the holidays are a time of joy and celebration, many students and their families also find this season to be filled with pain, disappointments, grief and sadness.  For some it is a matter of the dark, gloomy skies and lack of sunlight that bring on depression. For others, some unemployed or living in poverty, it calls up painful memories, anxiety, and regret.  Sometimes the pain is heightened by the contrast between the joyous, smiling pictures of the perfect Christmas and their own lives.

In today’s blog, CEI associate Sue Mullane, who is currently a consultant in West Virginia, shares a little on the less-than-perfect life that some children are experiencing. She also reflects on her early experience there.

By Suzan Mullane

After a long history as a teacher and counselor, I am now a travelling consultant in Cabell County, West Virginia.  Cabell is a medical center, with the largest inland port in the US, many gorgeous parks, warm-hearted resilient people, and a stellar autism program at Marshall University. But Cabell has challenges:  high poverty, the highest death rate from drug overdoses in the US, and the highest neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) birth rates. Yet there is good news: Cabell is addressing NAS with cutting-edge interventions according to NBC news, and expanding its drug treatment programs.

As the WV economy shifts from coal mining, some come to Cabell to receive training for new skills, but others feel hopeless. Many hard-working men and women have labored in the mining economy for generations and sadly many are now unemployed. Students can find themselves in the crossfire of these social issues along with their teachers; however, Cabell’s leaders embrace resiliance theory as they continually shepherd their children from birth to adulthood.

Schools: Improvement Goals and Progress. My work has focused on helping teachers and principals use a more holistic approach in their schools: district-wide training on the effects of trauma and the brain, improve class decorum through relationships and skill-building, and project based personalized learning. The goals are to elevate literacy while elevating students’ hope for their futures. Restorative justice is one way Cabell is celebrating students’ success. Huntington East Middle School’s suspension rates are down 60% through the implementation of restorative justice. Cabell is also expanding the tenants of expeditionary learning in an effort to engage all students.

Holiday Considerations – Nurturing as a Foundation for Literacy.  My recent sojourns to Cabell have reinforced the importance of a teacher’s unconditional love. ‘School culture, where every student feels safe and nurtured, is a cornerstone towards literacy; it the fundamental work and foundation for school improvement,’ according to Dr. Jeff Smith, Assistant Superintendent of School Improvement, Cabell County Schools. Dr. Todd Alexander, Assistant Superintendent of Leadership, and his administrative team created the “Handle with Care (HWC) Program.” The HWC program includes provision for notifying teachers/counselors when special care needs to be given to students in the classroom. This confidential program is a coordinated effort with first responders, the Cabell County Police Department and other social service agencies that witness trauma in the community.

My Early Experience in West Virginia. As I consider West Virginia, while preparing my next workshops on trauma in the classroom, I can’t help but reflect on my early experience in Cabell with a grandparent and the simple joy of a home cooked meal.

‘At the end of the school day, we walked the long, cold way home feeling happy and hungry. There we found a warm fire, country ham with gravy and hot biscuits, and a mother to hug us! If snow blew under the doors that night, what did it matter? Christmas time was just around the corner.’ Jenny Lee EllisonSand Knob through the Eyes of a Child

The West Virginia narrative often reflects spiritual stories of compassion, the will to survive and the art of giving to others, many times the ‘others’ are broken and vulnerable. My WV narrative as a traumatized, transient youth from Ohio was no exception. I was broken and vulnerable from my mother’s suicide. Sadly, I was home alone with her when she pulled the trigger on that rainy May morning of 1973, and because I was her emotional caretaker for years, I felt tremendous shame for not doing a ‘better job’ as her daughter.  Child/parent role reversals are all too common.

Fifteen and in 9th grade I knew I had to finish the school year. I was brought up to believe education was important, but I’d sit passively in class while I stared out the window-numb. Most of my teachers didn’t know what to do with me. I saw the school counselor only once.

After several months of being truant and underperforming, I went to live with my fraternal grandmother in Huntington, across the Ohio River.  For the first time in years I had consistent hot meals I did not have to cook. Biscuits and gravy with tomatoes from my Uncle Kenny’s garden became my comfort food. But the most comforting food for my brain was the sense of family in the neighborhood and especially at school. Huntington East High School welcomed me intentionally; they knew my story before I arrived and assigned me a peer to show me around and answer questions. Teachers tutored me at lunch, after school and basically hugged me on the rare occasion I had a ‘bad day.’ I felt safe, nurtured and encouraged. I joined the choir and sang. I thrived.

Carl Rogers wrote about the importance of the therapeutic relationship; his unconditional positive regard is certainly noteworthy given my history. True, teachers are not therapists, but they can be parental figures by default. Just like my West Virginia experience. When we’re mindful of our power to make a positive imprint on children and youths’ lives, especially children in trauma, we become empowered ourselves. The courage to make a difference. The art of giving. The miracle of transformation.

Learn more about Suzan’s  work with Cabell County here.


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