31 for 41: Sound the Alarm

Dear Donovan,

I want everyone to like me.  It’s a part of who I am.  In college, I set out to accomplish goals but never wanted to make anyone mad.  Then a friend told me, “If you never make anyone mad, you will never get anything done.”  I thought maybe I could be the exception to her rule, but soon learned that I could not.  Taking a stand sometimes means making a choice to speak up for some person or some value, even though you know some will not like to hear what you have to say.

As humans, we sometimes face hesitation before we speak up.  What has given me more boldness and less hesitation, however, has been experience.  Let me give you an example.  When I started teaching, fresh out of college, I knew that I was not a psychology or sociology expert, but I was observant enough to notice disturbing behavior patterns of some of my students.  When I tried to wave a red flag, so to speak, my efforts were often met with a surprising lack of concern.

Maybe the fault was partially mine for not effectively communicating what I saw that was alarming.  Maybe the fault was partially in the hands of people who were complacent and accepting of the way things were.  Maybe the problem was partially due to the overworked and undersupported status of those who might have been able to do something otherwise.  Whatever the case, when I left that school and began going to court each day with clients, I learned how to look up pending criminal cases through public records.  I selected ten names of former students, those that I had worried about the most.  Out of the ten, seven young men already had upcoming court cases for misdemeanor crimes.

I did not find joy in being right.  I was mad that my warnings had not been taken more seriously.  I was more mad at myself for not saying more.

The experience of looking back, once sad and bad things have happened, and wishing I had said and done more, becomes a gift of boldness.  It doesn’t mean I think I am always right.  It doesn’t mean that a severely at-risk child cannot create a beautifully successful life, or that a perfectly well-behaved child is guaranteed to be successful.  It does mean that I choose to speak up when I see alarming behavior patterns in children, without worrying about which adults might not like what I have to say.

Sadly, I have seen this pattern repeated so many times through the years.  Young men and women sit in my classroom each day, consumed by anger or deceitfulness or a desire to be loved.  Some of them are very nice to me, and others not so much.  I try to demonstrate a balance of love and limits.  Some of them figure out some things, get professional help, and/or move to a more healthy home environment.  But too many take on unhealthy adult activities so closely related to the anger, deceit, or longing for love.  Some have now battled drugs for years.  Some are in prison.  Some are dead.

So you see, while I want to always be respectful and civil, I cannot concern myself too much with offending an adult’s comfort level when the lives of children are at stake.  A boy I caught stealing cookies during my very first year of teaching  is now in prison, and may never get out.  That has taught me to sound the alarm.  As I strive to be, I want you also to be a person who will choose concern over comfort, principles over social position, and people over politics.  

There will be many reasons why people will not like what you have to say, even when you come from a place of concern and principles.  You cannot control that.  What you can control, however, are two personal qualities that will give your voice more power:

First, be a hard worker.  If you have an undisputed record of a strong work ethic, then no one can say you are just trying to avoid your own responsibilities when you speak up about an issue.  Being a hard worker separates your voice from the complainers.  

Second, be a person who demonstrates authentic care and concern for others.  Then, when you speak up, others will know it is not about your own selfish interests.  They will know it is because you care about people who are hurting, in need of support or justice, or in danger.  Being a loving person separates your voice from the self-righteous.

I am so proud of you for all the times, just the ones I know about, where you have spoken up for others.  When you want to speak up, make sure you have accurate information and pure motives, and then march on!  As time tells the tale, you will never regret being a voice who tried to stop bad things from happening.  I will always support you in your own efforts to sound the alarm.

Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.  Proverbs 31:9

I love you forever,

Your unapologetically vocal mama


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