Exhausted and Angry: The Signs of a Bad Student or a Domestic Violence Survivor?
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Could time move any slower??
Brent* was struggling to keep his eyelids open, let alone pretend to pay attention, while the English teacher droned on and on about participles and subjunctive tenses and….oh honestly, she might as well have been speaking French. He hated English. The teacher probably hated him for sleeping through every class, failing tests, and forgetting assignments, but he was just…so…tired…
As fatigue won out, his head slipped silently onto his folded arms, and his lazy dreams floated back to the night before…
It was 10:30pm when he slid the key into the lock and eased the door open as gently as possible. Surely Dad was passed out by now, but he could never be too safe. He crept silently toward the stairs on the other side of the living room, when a lamp light to his left made him stop. Mom was curled up on the armchair staring blankly at the wall as a haunted expression covered her face. Her hair was tousled, and her eyes looked sunken in and bloodshot from crying. Frustration made him stop in his tracks. His mom had been so beautiful, and her laugh had been contagious. But he hadn’t heard it in years.
His hesitant question broke through both of their revelry, and she straightened up instantly, looking like a kid caught stealing a cookie. She wiped the nonexistent tears from her face, but before she could respond, a string of curses shattered the quiet in the house. Dad’s footsteps in the kitchen, loud and clumsy, confirmed what Brent already knew (what he always knew), Dad was drunk.
He turned to face him and thanked his lucky stars (or God, if there was one) that he was just as big as his dad now. He stepped into the path between his parents and shoved his dad’s shoulder. Brent had long since learned that there was no talking Dad down when he got this angry; a few punches were the only thing that would slow him down. Brent just prayed that tonight he wouldn’t take too many in return.
It’s startling to think how many kids like Brent are out there today. Kids who teachers might write off as lazy or unmotivated, or maybe just plain dumb. Kids who have horrors going on at home that we can’t fathom. Kids whose bodies are trapped in a fight or flight response that leaves them drained, utterly unable to prioritize something as non-life threatening as schoolwork.
I had the honor of talking with Brent for a couple months, and I learned some astonishing things about his situation. In order to avoid these late night fights with his dad, Brent would come home as late as possible. As his dad slept, passed out drunk, Brent would creep up the steps to his room to try to get a few precious hours of sleep. His alarm would go off around 2:45am, so that he could go work a night job to help support his mom and younger siblings. After he finished school and his second job in the afternoons, he’d take a nap, but all in all, he was only getting 3-5 hours of interrupted, restless sleep.
Brent struggled with staying awake in class (for good reason), and his failing grades combined with encounters with his dad left him with incredible pent-up rage. But I never met a kid as respectful and responsive to my advice as him. He saw where his anger was taking him, and he DID not want to end up like his dad. He just longed for a normal life. In our meetings, we talked about safety planning, ways to get just a bit more sleep, coping mechanisms, and eating a healthy breakfast to give him a bit more energy.
Simple steps, but sometimes that’s all it takes.
Brent ended up passing his English class, having more self-confidence, and finding productive ways to deal with his anger. He is an incredible young man. I have no doubt that he will break the cycle of violence that plagues his family and do amazing things with his life.
There is hope.
If you’re a survivor of domestic violence, whether it was in the past or it’s ongoing, you are not alone. And like Brent, you’re not destined to follow in the footsteps of an abuser. You can choose hope. Sometimes just talking about it helps. Other times there are action steps you can take. Whatever it is, we can help. Call 1.800.770.1650 today to talk about your situation and walk through options with an advocate.
If you're a teacher, paraprofessional, or other adult with direct contact with kids, consider this: Every child has a story, and every behavior is rooted in a deeper issue. Try to look beyond the surface and love the student with patience and compassion. You might just have the honor of being let into their deepest, most painful secrets. And like me, you might get to walk them through to better times.
*The student’s name was changed for confidentiality purposes.