My first day of high school I ate lunch in the bathroom—or at least I tried to. I walked into the bathroom, sat on the sink, and attempted to eat my cheese sticks while I wondered why I couldn’t just be a regular kid. Girls walked in and out, frowning at me and laughing with their friends. I was embarrassed, but I knew that this embarrassment was much better than what awaited me in the intimidating lunchroom.
You see, I had just come from an extremely small private school on the city’s east side. My graduating class MIGHT have been 40, and I had known most of them since Pre-K.
I was now attending a school with about 1200 students, about half of which were currently eating lunch in the lunchroom. Getting my lunch was enough of a struggle, as person after person hopped in front of me in line while I patiently waited. I didn’t have the self-confidence to stop them, and I definitely wasn’t going to ruin my social standing by telling on them. Therefore, I waited in line, probably 25 minutes, as my heart raced with every voice that added to the mass amounts of noise already present. My hands were sweating, my legs shaking, and I quickly realized that this was going to be a long four years if I didn’t even have a place to comfortably eat lunch.
Throughout my first year, I developed that space, and I came to find my home at my new high school. I had auditioned for our advanced choir throughout the summer, and after my first month, I realized that just about all the choir students enjoyed lunch in the choir room. It was their safe space—their home.
It quickly became my home, and it played an integral role in how I navigated the school going forward. I found a family, and they helped me to feel comfortable and like I fit-in.
Many high schools have safe-spaces for students, and they can look like lots of things. Sports teams, anime clubs, gaming clubs, school newspapers, there’s all types of ways for students to find their communities in school. These spaces are important, especially in such formative years. Students need to have a place that they can call their own–a place to feel normal and like they matter. But unfortunately, with the lack of monetary resources in Detroit schools, and Michigan schools, comes the hard choices between funding educational necessities versus social necessities.
Before I start with suggestions for how to better support students until we get the money that we need to adequately fund schools, I think it’s important to hint at why safe spaces are important–even in a city that’s about 85% Black. A lot of times, when we think “safe space,” we think, “safe from what?” The reality is that schools are not inherently safe spaces for everyone-–and I don’t even mean from violence. There are many students who are bullied and taunted for liking things like anime, girls who are harassed for dressing certain ways (even by administrators and teachers), LGBTQ students who are mentally and physically harmed by students who don’t understand, and many other groups who just aren’t safe in schools. That’s where safe spaces come in. Groups where these students, who often aren’t accepted anywhere else, can come to feel normal. They don’t have to pretend to be anything, they don’t have to explain their experiences, they don’t even have to discuss their identities! They can just …be. That’s what safe spaces offer for students, and that’s why it’s important for schools to have the resources for students to create them.
Now, the reality is that some of these groups do exist in Detroit. Like I said above, we make it happen, because we’re Detroiters and we push through all our barriers. Still though, I have three tips, as a former student wishing and praying she had a place to belong, for anyone looking to create those safe spaces for their students.
1. You don’t have to try and pretend to understand the people you’re trying to support.
The worst thing to hear from an adult is that they know how we feel. It’s just not true. Bullying and harassment looks so much different than it did even 10 years ago. We don’t need for you to tell us your stories and try to connect them through dots that don’t exist. We just need you to listen to us. To hear us. And to work with us to create the space we need, which leads me to my next point.
2. Don’t just try and create the space you wanted when you were our age.
It’s sweet to be the person who wants to “be who they needed” when they were younger. Unfortunately, the reality is that the needs have likely changed since then. Ask students what they need, don’t assume that it’s what you needed when you experienced X.
3. Be an ally.
This one is quite simple in theory, but it’s pretty hard in practice. As an adult, it’s easy to run things yourself. You’ve been alive longer, you know more than us, and I’m sure that your plans will probably go smoother. Unfortunately though, that’s not what support looks like all the time. Sometimes support is trusting the students to know what they need and to give them the opportunity to decide what that looks like–even if it changes! As an ally to students, you should be open to them running things. When you separate yourself from other adults as someone who respects and trusts your students, that’s when you begin to see the real students. And that’s when they begin to trust you back.
Ultimately, safe spaces are hard to cultivate because it depends on so many things. But, that isn’t an excuse not to try! Safe spaces are built on trust. On everyone being there for the same reason. And on everyone being dedicated to never be the people who hurt them.