Survival on Urban Mean Streets at Odds with School Success

Published by — Since 6th grade, she’s been a hair-trigger fighter, as Dad taught her.  But one day early this spring she realized she’d better get with the program.

Kaitlyn finds herself in a weird fight with her dad — her beloved dad, I might add.  “I respect him so much.”  But she’s torn between two incompatible worlds — his and the school’s.  (Kaitlyn is not her real name.)

Since 6th grade, she’s been a hellion, a hair-trigger fighter, just as dad taught her.  But one day early this spring she got “that really ugly orange slip that said I was at risk of failing 7th grade.”  Certain school support staff, whom she also adores gushingly, finally got her to understand that if she didn’t buckle down, her friends would go on without her and she’d still be in 7th grade.  That staff had been working with Kaitlyn for years, but it wasn’t until that fateful day that she realized she’d better get with the program, immediately.

And she did.  Furthermore, doing school work actually produced results.  “I’m getting an 86 in science!” as if by miracle.  She’s thinking of becoming a nurse, “or something,” that only comes with academic success.  So she’s determined to work hard in summer school and in 8th grade before heading to high school, “where it really counts.”  Because, she says, eyes wide with horror, she’s not going to be like her older sister who already has a baby and “is stuck.”  Kaitlyn wants more options than the poverty-ridden streets of her home town can give her.

Dad’s fine with improved grades.  But he’s not at all fine with her “becoming weak.”  Fighting is survival.  He’s furious and blames the school.  “He wants to be sure I’m protecting myself.  He’s so worried I’m going to get stepped on.  He always says that if you give them one chance and they don’t back off, you have to react violently.”

Whoa, did he really say “violently?”  Her saucy teen self let me know what a clueless question that was.  “Yea-ah.”

But this is the reality of mean-streets parenting.  This dad’s by no means the only parent at odds with the school culture.  Low-income parents can’t watch over their kids all the time.  Even kids being cooped up indoors have to go to school, get milk, or see a friend occasionally.  So many urban parents want their kids to respond to the slightest threat with fists and fingernails.  Otherwise they get “stepped on.”  A scary presence keeps the bullies away.

And she had been stepped on.  Badly.  Through 5th grade she was a quiet, good student, suffering constantly at the hands of bullies.  She couldn’t tell anyone because Dad would go nuts.

“But when I got to 6th grade, everything changed.  If I wasn’t different, I wasn’t going to make it.  So I just let go of the pressure and was myself by blowing off steam all the time.  It got so easy just to not care.  My friends stayed the same as they were, so I hung out with other people — obnoxious, mean, disrespectful people.  Someone tells them they don’t like their shirt and they’d go crazy.  They took immediate control of the situation.  Everyone knew not to mess with them.  I liked that.”

Just as her dad advised.

“So I became just like them.  If someone accidently pushed me, I’d go insane.  My dad had lots of advice about how to fight.  And I did what he taught me.  But it wasn’t helping me in school.  I was always wrong and always in trouble.”

Which was fine.  Until it wasn’t.

Well-trained in restorative practices, the support staff at Kaitlyn’s school had been persistently working on building relationships with her, knowing that if they could earn her trust, she’d take charge of her own behavior.  She gets teary talking about the Restorative Coach.  “I didn’t listen to her in the beginning, but then she became a second mom.  I finally realized I wasn’t alone.  I wanted to be a mean person so people couldn’t hurt me.  But [the support staff] weren’t hurting me.  They were calm when I exploded.  So I already had a good relationship with them when they sat me down and painted a picture of my future.  I changed the day I got that slip.  Well, mostly.  And a month later they were all saying how proud they were of me.  Oh, I have my days.  But now I’m becoming a role model to my younger siblings.

The school’s relations with Dad are still a work in progress.  If Kaitlyn ever got hurt, no matter where or how, he’ll be down those principals’ throats.  But she feels strongly that the choice to be successful at school is hers.  Staying out of fights is a different way of staying safe.  She’ll handle Dad.

Adults in urban schools complain bitterly about the aggression that many kids bring to school with them.  For good reason.  Parents teach jungle survival skills because they worry their kids will get hurt without them.  So until the streets are reliably safer, you can’t really blame the parents.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyzes data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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