Ella Lee Dominguez: The kids aren’t alright (Column)

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A little more than a year ago, I found myself halfway through my shift at a Lawrence elementary school. My first job after graduating college, I was so eager to work with young minds in a time when it was all hands on deck. 

I was chatting with some students in the hallway when the school was rocked by some routine maintenance happening on the exterior of the building. It sounded like gunshots. Terrified screams rang through the hallway — accompanied by the sound of small feet pounding the tile floor in a sprint. Immediately, the children began to hide and panic, ducking into cubbies, pulling their jackets over their heads, gripping their backpacks as shields, and whimpering in pure fear. 

They looked toward me, the only adult in the vicinity, for guidance. I, myself, was caught off guard by the loud, mechanical, repetitive booms blasting all around us. The logical side of me knew it had to be construction — I walked by the crew that morning. However, the fearful side of me questioned, “What if these kids are right? What if it is a gunman?” 

My best attempts to reassure the students that we were safe did little to dissuade from the panic that had erupted. The damage had already been done. The rug was pulled out from under these children months ago, and the disarray and fear of this moment was just another day at a public school in modern America.

As a child growing up in the Kansas public school system, my school was my sanctuary. I fondly remember days spent coloring, playing in the sun, singing to the trees, and scraping my knees on the blacktop. My biggest fears included getting a paper cut, quicksand, and the movie “ET.” Though simple joys like these are timeless, this upcoming generation of children no longer has the luxury of feeling invincible, of feeling safe. Our kids have been pulled, unwillingly, from their storybooks and swing sets into an adult world with adult problems much too soon — and it is destroying them from the inside out.

I have worked with youth, both virtually and in person, since the pandemic began two years ago. I have seen firsthand the sorrow and fear these children carry with them daily. Many of these children are experiencing an intense, harrowing type of grief before they even learn how to spell. Our children are innocent bystanders in this brutal battle, and we’re failing them every step of the way. 

COVID-19. School shootings. Book bans. Inflation. School closures. The looming effects of climate change. Critical Race Theory debates. Protesters getting arrested on their school grounds. School budgets and resources being slashed. Teachers resigning and retiring at record-breaking rates. We’re witnessing a generation of children being brought up with no concept of safety or stability.

Children are facing the brunt of the pandemic with none of the resources or emotional literacy to process any of it. These little bodies are filled with big, scary, feelings — and it’s becoming more and more apparent in the classroom. In the past two years, there has been a major uptick in aggression, depression, poor participation in class, difficulty with social interaction, and self-harm among school-aged children. This not only creates a dangerous situation for our students, but for our teachers and school faculty as well. 

Our Lawrence teachers have displayed a heroic level of dedication and bravery as of late. Having dealt with blow after blow, our school systems have far surpassed their boiling point. Something has got to give.

As I remember that fateful day in the hallway, I will never forget the look on those children’s faces as they thought somebody was attacking their school. These kids are experiencing something much heavier than many of us realize. This is their reality; the only world they know. Many of them don’t even recall what life before a pandemic was like. 

It’s up to us to cultivate a better life for the kids in our community. We can do better — we must do better! Protection and stability isn’t enough; we have to restore the childhood magic that was stolen from them. 

In a time when many of us may feel powerless, it’s important to remember that there is always something we can do, big or small, to enact change in our community. Thoroughly research local election candidates, and even run for office yourself! Contribute to school fundraisers. Sponsor a classroom. Offer to babysit for a friend. Volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters. Coach a little league team. Advocate for more kid-safe activities in Lawrence. Give a coffee (and a hug) to a stressed parent or teacher in your life. Remain hopeful despite the odds.

The kids aren’t alright — but if we work together and each do our part in creating a brighter tomorrow, they will be.

— Ella Lee Dominguez (she/her) serves as the director of programs for Sunrise Project in Lawrence. Her background is in nonprofit leadership, communications, and artistic directing. You can find her baking banana bread on Saturday mornings and watering her cute plants. To reach her, you can send a memo to ellaleedominguez (at) gmail (dot) com. 

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