Back To School: More To It Than Meets The Eye

Posted by Susan Ofstein

Aug 22, 2018 1:00:00 PM


Summer is ending, and school is back in session. Cue the advertisements of back-to-school sales on supplies and clothes, “Meet the Teacher” nights, and those timeless first day of school pictures. As many children and families are filling their new backpacks with loads of supplies for their first day, many families do not have the means to even send their children to school with new pencils.

One of my teacher friends posted this poem on social media and it really spoke to me, as I imagined one of the many youth that we work with in MST, starting their day in a similar fashion:


Cause I Ain't Got a Pencil

by Joshua T. Dickerson

I woke myself up

Because we ain’t got an alarm clock

Dug in the dirty clothes basket,

Cause ain’t nobody washed my uniform

Brushed my hair and teeth in the dark,

Cause the lights ain’t on

Even got my baby sister ready,

Cause my mama wasn’t home.

Got us both to school on time,

To eat us a good breakfast.

Then when I got to class the teacher fussed

Cause I ain’t got no pencil.


After reading, I thought about the chain of events that could have unfolded for the student in this poem: Perhaps he fussed back at the teacher. Depending on what he said, maybe he went to the principal’s office, which led to him getting suspended. It's possible that even worse happened—maybe he was charged with making a “terroristic threat.” It's not uncommon—many children that we work with in MST have such charges. And although several of them did not actually threaten to harm anyone in the school, , they were still charged because they acted out, cursed at the teacher or “fussed.” These types of charges that are school-related all help lay another track in the school-to-prison pipeline. I agree with discipline and making sure we have safe schools, but we also need to stop and look at what is really going on with our youth. In MST, we look at the multiple factors across all the systems that a young person is involved with, including school. I often wonder how many times a youth’s problems at school could have been solved with a good night’s sleep, clean clothes, and the supplies to succeed. Through our work in MST, we work hard to close that school-to-prison pipeline by empowering parents and caregivers to increase communication with the school, to be involved with their child’s education and to use their informal supports to problem-solve. 

On the surface, a student experiencing behavior problems at school may just look like they are a disruptive and undisciplined “problem-child” that needs to be moved to an alternative setting. However, if we dig a little deeper, we see a young person who really wants to learn, who went out of their way to get to school, and just might need a little extra support. When we look at surface behaviors, we often miss the strengths of our youth and the real problems that they are struggling with, all because they “ain’t got a pencil.”


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Topics: School Safety