To really know our students

The resilience of the young people we work with amazes, inspires and sometimes … embarrasses me.

My upbringing was like this: I had parents who supported my education. I never saw anyone I loved die. We weren’t rich, but I had everything I needed financially. I had very few health problems. Did I do anything to be born into a family like that and grow up in those conditions? No, that’s the blessing freely given to me. Sadly, many of the young people I work with aren’t so blessed.

ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 14: Pau Gasol #16, Phil Jackson, Kobe Bryant #24 and Lamar Odom #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers pose for a portrait after defeating the Orlando Magic in Game Five of the 2009 NBA Finals at Amway Arena on June 14, 2009 in Orlando, Florida. The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic 99-86. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Credit: 2009 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

I was reminded of this during the week when I heard sad news about former NBA player Lamar Odom. Lamar won NBA championships with the LA Lakers in 2009 and 2010, was named NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 2011 and won an Olympic medal with the USA basketball team in 2004. Recently he’s more known for marrying into the Kardashian family and starring in Keeping Up with the Kardashians. From the outside he seemed to have everything a person could want.


This week Lamar was found unconscious in a Las Vegas brothel. There are reports that he has a number of illegal drugs in his system and he has been on life support in hospital for the last few days. The question many people are asking is, “Wow, how could he throw everything away like that?”

Reading more about Lamar I learned that he has struggled with challenges all his life. His upbringing was particularly hard. His father was a heroine addict; his mother died of cancer when he was just 13; he was a passenger in a car which crashed killing his best friend; his son Jayden died of Sudden Infant Syndrome when he was just six months old … “It seems like I’ve been burying loved ones my whole life,” he once said.


Maybe we need to ask a different question of Lamar. “Wow, how did he manage to achieve everything he did in his life while carrying that weight around?” It’s not to excuse the negative things he’s done, but to have understanding, empathy.

This got me thinking about my students. How well do I really know them and the kinds of challenges they face in their lives? Sam (not real name) is one my students who frequently came late to class and often missed the morning classes altogether. One day I sat with him and explained how he was letting others in his group down and that I would have to remove him from his group if his lateness continued. That’s when Sam told me a little about his life.


His dad is in jail and his mum has been struggling with substance issues. A few weeks before, Sam was removed from his home by CYFS and placed in the care of his older sister who lives in a caravan park in a nearby suburb. Sam and his sister clean the park in the evenings to pay for their rent. They have no car, so Sam has to walk to school which takes him about an hour.

I felt so embarrassed after listening to Sam’s story. My question changed from, “Why do you come so late to school?’ to, “Where do you get the strength to come to school at all?” Sam isn’t the perfect student, but his resilience is remarkable. It probably won’t show up on his NCEA Record of Achievement, but it’s extraordinary. I don’t know if I could do it.

Sapling growing in stone wall

Not every student will have a background as challenging as Sam’s or Lamar Odom’s, but it does illustrate the need for those of us who work with young people to not judge them on surface things. We need to talk to our students, to listen to them, to stick with them when we feel like giving up, to have grace, patience and empathy.


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