A Life Saved in the Classroom

BY LEA STEELE

Fresno County — Even though it happened 25 years ago, I remember it as though it were today. Sean, a 11-year-old boy, walked in my classroom and changed both of our lives forever. 

Although I was a young, inexperienced adult and new teacher, my “Spidey” senses alerted me whenever Sean’s stepmother was around. She hovered like a hawk around her stepson Sean. In her presence, he cowered and kept his gaze down. As inexperienced as I was, I was drawn to their interactions.

The vice principal told me that Sean’s biological mother had died when he was eight. He was the eldest to a younger brother. Sean’s stepmom looked after both boys while his Navy officer dad was on duty in the Pacific. Even though Sean was shy and soft-spoken, we quickly developed a warm rapport.

At school, I also served as the activities director in charge of the snack bar. Items were stored in my classroom. One day, another student told me he had seen Sean sneaking items from the closet. Clearly, confronting Sean, guns blazing, was the wrong approach. I needed to tread carefully.

So, one day I asked Sean to stay in the classroom and help me arrange the snack bar. Working away together provided a good distraction for us. I told Sean what another student had witnessed. I assured him he wasn’t in trouble; I was just concerned. Sean became nervous and flushed. I encouraged him to write down what was wrong rather than telling me. After a while, he walked up to me and gave me a kind of journal entry. 

My hands shook as I began to read.

Arriving home from school each day, Sean’s stepmother stripped the boys down and locked them in the bathroom. She wouldn’t feed them dinner or let them sleep in their beds. If they complained or made noise, she beat them with a belt. The last lines of his journal entry read: “I’m so sorry, it’s just we’re hungry.” Fighting back tears, I gave him a hug. 

I told him I was bound by law to tell the vice principal and it wasn’t safe for him or his brother to stay with their stepmother. Following an investigation by Child Protective Services, police arrested the stepmother. Sean and his brother moved out of state to live with their paternal grandparents. He sent me Mother’s Day cards for several years.

Imagine if Sean and his brother were “going to” school in California these days, on Zoom, no teacher to keep watch and have their back. A school closure isn’t just an inconvenience for kids like Sean. Missing out on in person instruction sets the trajectory for the rest of their lives.

The science is clear: there’s a tragic tradeoff to keeping our schools closed. Mental health crises – including domestic abuse and youth suicide – are skyrocketing.

What keeps me awake at night are lost opportunities to help these endangered kids, provide a safe space amid chaos. School, and the caring people in them, are often a life raft, and I don’t mean metaphorically. 

Who have we missed with schools locked down? Who has been tossed in the waves and not resurfaced? Kids like Sean are out there in the thousands, and they need every advocate they can find.

Studies definitively show schools can and should reopen. People like American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd are standing on the necks of kids like Sean in the quest for power and status. It is unconscionable.

I don’t share this story lightly. In fact, I’ve never talked about it, feeling it wasn’t my story to tell. But knowing what’s at stake, I think he would be okay with it. More than all the teachers, scientists, parents, union leaders and politicians, I think Sean knows the deal. We cannot waste another single day to right the wrongs done by school closures. 

I’m ready to go back to fulltime school, five days a week. I don’t mean on Zoom. I mean back in the classroom with as many of my students as are ready for in-person learning – and not just for my own sons, ages 9 and 16, who are guaranteed classroom instruction by the California Constitution, but for students like Sean*.

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Lea Steele is a public schoolteacher in Fresno County. *Sean is a fictitious name to protect the student’s identity.

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