(Not) "Bad Kids"

© 2018-Cottage Grove Sentinel

They know what you call them but they're taking back the title because this is their school. And their story

There’s a bulletin board outside the room at the district office where the South Lane School Board meets that has a sign pinned to it.

“People will forget what you did. People will forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

For the last seven months, readers have been given the chance to follow the students of Al Kennedy High School as they moved to a new location, got a new principal and continued to do more with less as part of an ongoing series in The Sentinel called “Bad Kids.”

The project was a little unconventional.

Give two reporters complete access to a high school campus on an ever-changing, no-notice schedule and let them see what happens.

They’ll take notes and photographs, ask questions in-between lessons, observe lectures and attend school events. Everything was on the record until it wasn’t. Every few weeks, they’ll write a story and while the administration was granted the authority to review the pieces before they went to press, the deal mandated that if the story was accurate, it ran. Never once did the administration ask us to take something out, put something in or alter something for perception-sake. The only thing they asked, was that we have a conversation about the title of the series and after a handful of discussions and a few drafts, we agreed.

“Bad Kids.”

We landed on the title because it was impossible not to. If we were going to be faithful to the idea that this project was about a school doing the most with the least and learning what stories to tell as we went then we could not turn a blind eye to the most fundamental lesson we learned as we began to engage with the community at Kennedy: That in addition to carrying the weight of homelessness, teen pregnancy, learning disorders, trauma and all around bad luck, these students were burdened with the judgement of a community that would rather measure them against the stereotypes associated with their circumstance than provide them the support needed to overcome it.

“That’s where the bad kids go” was uttered so frequently in conjunction with the name 'Kennedy' that bystanders would not be faulted for thinking it part of the school’s designation.

So, we gave the phrase back to the students.

We said, no.

No, they’re not unable to learn.

No, they’re not trouble makers.

No, they don’t have anything wrong with them.

No.

They’re not bad kids.

That’s why it’s in quotes. But, that may have been lost in translation for some.

The title is essentially an accidental Rorschach test. It’s what someone makes of it, sometimes exposing an inherent bias. That wasn’t our intention, of course.

We chose the title "Bad Kids" to challenge the misconceptions because anyone who spends more than a few minutes on campus will come to discover that the students at Kennedy are the most hardworking, generous, open-minded, accepting students in the South Lane School District.

The bum cards some of them have been dealt and the inequity they face in their own community doesn’t dictate their behavior. At Kennedy, kids don’t believe in spite. They don’t complain when someone gets more than they do, they just work harder. They try again.

In the next installment, readers will have the chance to see just how hard they have to work and how many more times they have to try. And just how unfair it can seem.

After spending a day at Kennedy, we knew they weren’t bad kids. That’s what we’ve been trying to show for the last seven months.

How this misconception of Kennedy as a school has sometimes made the students feel like bad kids and the danger of indulging in stereotypes that rob potential and confidence from children already facing extraordinary circumstances with grit and grace lacking in people who’ve had decades’ more practice.

The staff and students of Kennedy let us onto their campus and into their lives to share their story and as we come to the end of the school year, and this series, we hope that’s become abundantly clear. These are not bad kids. And they’re not oblivious.

They know what you call them. But they’re taking back the title because this is their school. And their story.