Facing down fear: lessons from city schools

Nory Kong is no stranger to fear. The 12th-grader lives in San Francisco's hard-edged Mission District, where just walking to school can be unnerving. "Every two blocks there's a different gang, and you have to worry about what color to wear," she explains.

Many urban students are continually confronted with fear - fear of gangs and of crime, fear fed by the overall sense of danger that pervades some neighborhoods. But that doesn't mean they were less shocked than other US schoolchildren by the events of Sept. 11.

"In my neighborhood, I've seen people shot, but I've never seen thousands die like that," says Nory, a student at Gateway High School. "You could never expect to see a thing like that."

It's a paradox of urban education. Some students who have regular exposure to fear can be especially vulnerable to the feelings of insecurity sparked by cataclysmic events, experts say. But their responses can be unusually mature, too. And the fact that their schools are already engaged in helping them cope with various dangers - from crime and gangs to the possibility of being caught up in an instance of racial profiling by the police - means they may have lessons to offer students and educators around the country.

"The kids I work with have lived with violence all their lives, but they were devastated by this [terrorism]," says Julie Landsman, who taught for more than 20 years in Minneapolis inner-city schools and now serves as a writer-in-residence for several of them. What has impressed her, however, is the enormous sense of compassion many of these students develop.

"They were extremely empathetic," she says, referring to the reactions her students shared on the day of the terrorist attacks.

Grasping the complexities

But the reactions were also complex, she adds. "These kids are used to exploring things that are complicated, because that's the way their lives are," Ms. Landsman says. "They don't rush to simplistic explanations or definitions of things."

Especially when the topic turns to thoughts of retaliation or revenge, she says, these students seem to grasp quickly that there is no monolithic enemy out there. "They understand the differences within groups," she says, in part because schools in Minneapolis now serve many immigrant groups, including large numbers of Somali and Hmong students. "They know, for instance, that not all the Somali kids are alike and that there are many differences that exist among them."

At one of the schools where Landsman has worked, there was a student enrolled for a time whose father had ties to the Taliban. The students who knew him, she says, were particularly capable of forming nuanced views of the current political situation.

In some ways, Landsman says, urban schools in tough neighborhoods have an edge in helping their students through days like Sept. 11. Teachers and administrators often have already worked to turn their classrooms into close-knit environments where the children can feel safe.

"Because there's been such a conscious attempt to build a community, kids in these classes can talk about these hard things more easily and more quickly," she says.

'Too close to home'

But sometimes children already exposed to violence can be prone to making uncomfortably close connections to events such as the terrorist attacks.

Joseph Lee is a fifth-grader who attends the Children's Charter School in an inner-city neighborhood of Baton Rouge, La. Joseph says he was a bit nervous on the streets even before the attacks, but finds himself particularly so now.

"Somebody like a terrorist might just come around and put a gun in my face," he says. "I feel more scared."

"It's too close to home for these kids," says Caryla Griffin, a mother whose daughter is a third-grade student at the same school. "They have gunshots and people killed in the neighborhood, and then they're trying to figure out the relationship to this."

Will ongoing violence be forgotten?

What concerns her most as a parent, she says, is that inner-city children face fear regularly and yet often receive very little support at school in coping with such feelings. "It's only talked about at times like this," she says. "But these children have to deal with it on an ongoing basis. It's really, really hard for some of them."

Many educators also fail to take into account the impact such an ongoing sense of insecurity can have on academic performance, says Peter Thorp, principal of San Francisco's Gateway High School.

For some students, academic achievement becomes secondary to survival. When students are fearful, he adds, it can also be harder for teachers and administrators to create the kind of trustful environment that permits effective learning to take place.

Such conditions don't exist only in urban areas. "So many schools are battle zones rather than places of refuge for kids," Mr. Thorp says.

That's why it's essential that in times of peace and not just at moments of crisis, educators focus harder on ensuring that the students they work with are not feeling intimidated by events taking place around them. All schools should place a premium on creating a strong sense of community, and using the classroom as a safe place to allow students to share feelings, he says.

"Schools need to acknowledge that some percentage of kids wake up every day in circumstances that don't make them feel secure," he says.

For some students, that's a condition that needs to be dealt with year-round, and not just during moments of national crisis.

E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com.

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