Written October 2014
The children were making color palates, carefully mixing blue and yellow to make the perfect shade of green. A sixth grader pridefully held hers up for me to see. “Look at my purple,” she beamed, “isn’t it beautiful?” It was beautiful—beautifully simple, beautifully organic, beautifully hers. I beamed back at her, asking how she managed to make such a perfect purple. “It’s easy,” the child answered, “I closed my eyes and saw purple and Ms. S said that red and blue make purple so I made it.” Beautifully simple—completely unlike the world I have thrown myself into over the last several years.
I work in a New York City public school, a space where it is common for red and blue to make neon green one day and charcoal black the next. In fact, when “methodically” making decisions about what actions to take or not take, it is almost dangerous for us to assume that purple will be the result of mixing red and blue. The children with whom my staff and I work on a daily basis are perfect riddles with imperfect solutions. Every yellow temper tantrum and red fistfight is tinged with just enough blue unknown for anything to happen when thrown together. As youth practitioners, we are painters with a moving canvas, artists fighting to create masterpieces that supersede the status quo despite being entrenched in a system that celebrates being average. We seek for our children to know themselves outside of the labels pinned on them by the world. At risk. Black. Poor. Violent. These labels, however true, are dangerously confining for any person, let alone a child of eleven or twelve. In our school, we strive to shatter the glass bubble in which our children are held captive—recognizing its existence, slowly cracking through for fresh air, and eventually picking up the pieces and reconstructing a world in which we are all free to be ourselves and be loved.
Beautifully simple and awesomely complicated, we know that this process is not organic to the world we live in, especially to the world that our children live in. It is hard for us to imagine a reality in which 2+2 might equal 7, but in our space it is possible. Many times, even the best research, the most evidence-based practices, and the highest of intentions cannot prescribe what is “right.” We must dig into the cores that make us human and use our humanness (and even our godliness) in conjunction with our worldly knowledge. We know that it isn’t simple and that it won’t happen overnight, but we fight and we build and we grow every day, often endeavoring to find the perfect purple but celebrating when we get a dull shade of pink. Then we show up the next day, clinging to the hope that a tornado didn’t disrupt our gracefully drying paint and that we can do better this time. When we close our eyes we can see the perfect purple, but finding it seems beyond possibility. And then we realize that our vision was flawed and in our journey we found a color beyond our wildest imaginations, a color more perfect than our perfect purple that we could not have seen unless we opened our eyes.
Recently, in a spontaneous and thoughtless act of rage, one of my students punched through the glass window of a door. I sat in the emergency room with her for over six hours, holding her hand while her foster father held his phone. Despite her zest for defiance and her reputation of being difficult, in the emergency room this child was reduced to silent tears. She begged me not to leave, shared her warm blanket with me, and squeezed my hand tightly as she watched every stitch weave through her broken skin. I could not have been anywhere else and I am eternally grateful for the experience of giving love to a child who has rarely received it. But I am more grateful for the experience of seeing firsthand the ability of moments, the ability of compassion and commitment, to transform the frightening and bleeding colors of anger and guilt into promises of change and hues of new potential.
When we got back to school the next week, the principal called me in and asked how I planned on holding the child accountable for the broken door. It hadn’t occurred to me that the six stitches in her arm, the terrifying night in the hospital, and the true contrition displayed would not suffice as punishment. I do not blame him for following the formula that transgressions must be met with consequences. Yet it occurred to me in that moment that our job is not to punish students for their pre-programmed and often-uncontrollable physiological responses to feelings they can barely name let alone understand. It is instead our job to give our students the tools to mix their red anger and blue youth to find a new shade of purple that is not defined by punching glass. And we cannot be afraid or discouraged if a child’s shade of perfect purple fails to match or even resemble our own. One of the greatest gifts of working with children is learning to see through their colored glasses.
Nothing about this work is easy and nothing about our journeys with young people is guaranteed. However, if we make it our work to use the primary colors of infinite love, commitment, and Truth, we have the capacity to create infinite miracles and works of art the likes of which the world has never known. Our children teach us to defy that which is expected. We must not let our expectations (even the highest ones) cloud authentic opportunities to see things differently. We must show up every day ready to not only give solutions but to also receive them. For the color of change cannot be named; it can only be found, eyes and hearts wide open to the possibility of its existence.