Everyone has a story, and that story is filled with chapters that have made us who we are today. Those early chapters of that story sometimes are the ones that define us the most.
The Center for Disease Control has estimated that over half of our nation's children have experienced at least one or two types of childhood trauma. That adversity can have lasting effects. When I began to have opportunities to speak and advocate for students and for teachers, I found myself uniquely positioned to be able to speak about childhood trauma. But I had to make a decision first. I had to decide, did I want to just share the bright and shiny parts of my life, you know, those ones that we put out on social media that make us all look perfect, or did I want to make myself vulnerable and become an open book?
The choice became very clear. In order to make a difference in the life of a child, I had to become transparent. So I made the commitment to tell my personal story. And this story is filled with people that have loved me and taken care of me and grown me. And have helped me overcome and heal. And now it's time for me to help others do the same.
When I first started school, I was the picture of normalcy. I was from a good family, I was always dressed nicely, had a smile on my face, I was prepared for school. But my life was anything but normal. By this time, I had already become a victim of sexual abuse. And it was still happening. My parents didn't know, and I had not told anyone else. When I started school, I felt like this was going to be my safe place. So I was excited.
Imagine my dismay when I met my teacher, Mr. Randolph. Now Mr. Randolph was not my abuser. But Mr. Randolph was the epitome of everything that scared me the most in my life. I had already started these self-preservation techniques to where I took myself out of positions where I was going to be alone with a man. And here I was, as a student, I was going to be in a classroom with a man every day, for a year of school. I was scared; I didn't trust him. But you know what, Mr. Randolph would turn out to be my greatest advocate.
But in the beginning, oh, I made sure he knew I did not like him. I was noncompliant; I was that kid that was disengaged. And I also made it really hard on my parents, too. I didn't want to go to school, so I fought them every morning, getting on the bus. At night, I couldn't sleep, because my anxiety was so high. So I was going into class exhausted. Which, exhausted children are cranky children, and they're not easy to teach, you know that.
Mr. Randolph could have approached me with frustration, like so many teachers do with students like me. But not him. He approached me with empathy and with flexibility. I was so grateful for that. He saw this six-year-old was tired and weary. And so instead of making me go outside for recess, he would let me stay in and take naps, because he knew I needed rest. Instead of sitting at the teacher table at lunch, he would come and sit with the students at the student table. He would engage me and all my classmates in conversation. And I now look back and I know he had a purpose for that, he was listening, he was asking questions. He needed to find out what was going on. He built a relationship with me. He earned my trust. And slowly but surely, those walls that I had built around myself he started chipping away at, and I eventually realized he was one of the good guys.
I know that he felt like he wasn't enough. Because he made the move to talk to my mom. And got my mom's permission to let me start seeing a school guidance counselor, Ms. McFadyen. I started seeing Ms. McFadyen once or twice a week for the next two years. It was a process.
During that time period, I never disclosed to her the abuse, because it was a secret; I wasn't supposed to tell. But she connected the dots, I know she did, because everything that she did with me was to empower me and help me find my voice. She taught me how to use mental images to push through my fears. She taught me breathing techniques to help me get through those anxiety attacks that I would have so often. And she role-played with me. And she made sure that I could stand up for myself in situations.
And the day came where I was in the room with my abuser and one other adult. And I told my truth. I told about the abuse. Immediately, my abuser began to deny, and the person I disclosed to, they just weren't equipped to handle the bombshell that I had just dropped on them. It was easier to believe the abuser rather than a child.
So I was told never to speak of it again. I was made to feel like I had done something wrong, again. It was devastating. But you know what, something good came out of that day. My abuser knew that I was no longer going to be silent. The power shifted. And the abuse stopped.
But the shame and fear of it happening again remained. And it would remain with me for many, many years to come.
Mr. Randolph and Ms. McFadyen, they helped me find my voice. They helped me find the light out. But you know what, there are so many kids that aren't as fortunate as me. And you have them in your classrooms. That is why it's so important for me to talk to you today, so you can be aware and you can start asking the questions that need to be asked and paying attention to these students, so you too can help them find their way.
As a kindergarten teacher, I start my year off with my kids making box biographies. These are two of my students. And I encourage them to fill those boxes with things that tell me about them and about their life, what's important to you, you know? They decorate them, I mean, they really take time, they fill them with pictures of their families and of their pets, and then I let them present them to me and to the class. And during that time, I am an active listener. Because the things they say, the facial expressions that they give me, the things they don't say can become red flags for me and can help me figure out what their needs are. What is driving them to maybe have the behaviors that they're showing me in class. How can I be a better teacher by listening to their voices?
I also make times to develop relationships with them, much like Mr. Randolph did with me. I sit with them at lunch, I have conversations with them at recess, I go to their games on the weekends, I go to their dance recitals. I become a part of their life. Because in order to really know a student, you've got to infuse yourself into their lives.
Now I know some of you are middle school teachers and high school teachers, and you might think that those kids have already kind of developed, and you know, they're on autopilot at that point. But don't be deceived. Especially the kids that you think have it all together, because those are the ones that might need you the most. If you were to look at my yearbook, you would see me on about every page, because I was involved in everything. I even drove a school bus.
So I was that kid that teachers thought was the overachiever, the popular person, the one that had it together. But guys, I was lost. I was lost, and I wanted someone to ask me, "Lisa, why are you here all the time, why are you throwing yourself into all these things?" Did they ever wonder, was I running away from someone, was I running away from something? Why did I not want to be in my community or in my home? Why did I want to be at school all the time? No one ever asked.
Now don't get me wrong, all overachievers in your schools are not victims of abuse or trauma. But I just want you to take the time to be curious. Ask them why. You may find out that there is a reason behind it. You could be the reason that they move forward with their story. Be careful not to assume that you already know the ending to their story. Don't put a period where a semicolon should be. Keep that story going and help them know that even if something has happened traumatic to them, that their life is still worth telling. Their story is worth telling.
Now in order to do that, I really feel like we have to embrace our own personal stories as educators. Many of you might be sitting there and thinking, "Yeah. That happened to me. But I'm not ready to share." And that's OK. The time will come when you will feel it inside your soul that it's time to turn your past pain into purpose for the future. These children are our future. I just encourage you to take it day by day. Talk to someone. Be willing and just open.
My life story came full circle in the spring of 2018, where I was invited to speak to a group of beginning teachers and mentors. I shared my story, much like today with you, and afterwards I had a lady approach me. She had tears in her eyes and she quietly said, "Thank you. Thank you for sharing. I cannot wait to tell my dad everything that I heard today." She must have seen the perplexed look on my face, because she followed up by saying, "Mr. Randolph is my dad."
Lisa Godwin: "And he often wonders: Did he make a difference? Today, I get to go home and tell him, 'You definitely made a difference.'" What a gift. What a gift. And that prompted me to reach out to Ms. McFadyen's daughter as well, and to share with her what an impact Ms. McFadyen had made. And I wanted her to know I have advocated for more funding for guidance counselors, for school social workers, for psychologists, for nurses, because they are so vital to the mental and physical health of our children. I'm thankful for Ms. McFadyen.
I once heard someone say, in order to find your way out of the darkness, you have to find the light. Today, I hope that you leave this place and you seek opportunities to be the light. For not only students but for adults in your classrooms, in your schools, in your communities. You have the gift to help someone navigate through their trauma and make their story worth telling.