This post is written by Esther Bier.
Esther serves as a Health Educator at Erie Family Health Center - Amundsen.
I am getting the quintessential American high school experience now that I am twenty-four. I attended a private high school and I graduated with thirty-eight kids in my grade. All of us had stable home lives, went to college, and competed at a breakneck academic pace. There were no locks on our lockers. My math teacher invited my class over to her apartment to study for our AP exam. This was the norm.
The norm at Amundsen High School on the north side of Chicago where I am serving as a health educator in the Erie school-based health center appears quite the opposite. There are many passionate teachers, though I have seen some struggle to get students engaged and attentive. There are many high achieving students, though there are also those that don’t have enough food at home. There is a constant and unnerving police presence, though I acknowledge its necessity. The gulf of difference between my past education and the education I provide continues to give me pause. I continue to catch myself making assumptions about students’ lives that are more reflective of my own upbringing than their experience.
At the health center, I am responsible for organizing dental visits. Each month an RV from Advocate Health Care rolls into Amundsen’s parking lot and sees two students per period. There is a student here, let’s call him Nicholas, who needs extensive dental care. In October, I put him on the schedule but he didn’t show up. When he eventually came to the health center to receive his copious requisite vaccinations, he made a sheepish face when I told him he was going to be on November’s schedule. When I went to pull him from his physics class two minutes before his November appointment, his teacher said that he wasn’t in school and that he is absent more than present. Who knows what’s going on with his teeth, but I am more concerned about what is going on with his home life.
Nicholas doesn’t speak English and he recently emigrated from Guatemala. He has told other clinic staff that he is here without family and staying on a friend’s couch, but according to the school’s documentation he is not an unaccompanied minor. He works in a factory into the middle of the night. He is undocumented and resists meeting the Erie lawyer to discuss how she might help him receive the public aid he may be eligible for. Considering all that, it is no wonder why Nicholas hardly attends school and neglects appointments. I don’t know how I would make it out of bed (much less to school) if I were afraid of potential deportation, isolated from any familial support, desperate for income, and homeless.
Someone once told me that when it comes to parenting, it is necessary to not stay mad at them after they have made a mistake like hitting their sibling or throwing food on the floor. The child may apologize for the mistake and move on but frustration and anger often linger within the parent. If the parent continues to be angry at the child, both will surely be miserable and the child may behave worse over time. I often think about this in regards to teaching these students. It is important to not stay angry at them or hold them responsible for things entirely out of their control. Shaming Nicholas for missing his appointments does not make him more likely to show up next month or encourage him to make healthier choices. You have to see the person and not their illness, look at their context instead of their symptoms. When working with an under-served population that is different from your own, you have to acknowledge your own privilege and that you have much to learn. Only then can you provide comprehensive and affirming healthcare that can improve their quality of life, not just their quality of health.