05/08/2012 03:19 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2012

Rescuing the Kid in the Closet: Taking the Emotional Health of Kids Seriously

In recent conversations with a juvenile courts judge and the head of a school for professional psychology, I learned a great deal about emotional wellness and its tremendous impact on a child's ability to perform well and stay in school. I have learned that too often, very little is said about the emotional story of children in poor communities trying to make sense of life circumstances that even a balanced adult would find difficult to manage. Additionally, I've learned that when it comes to the achievement gap and academic achievement debate, the mental and emotional health of children tends to be overshadowed by the usual blame game as it relates to the responsibility of parents, teachers, school choice, funding, policy, etc.

But honestly, all of this, I already knew. As someone who once lived in poverty raised by a single parent addicted to drugs and alcohol, the absence of equitable funding, qualified teachers, fair standardized testing or socioeconomic-conscious policies were not my primary challenge in learning at a young age. My challenge was the emotional turmoil of showing up to school trying to focus after seeing things no child should ever have to see. I know first-hand that more attention must be paid to the emotional wellness of children when addressing therapeutic healing, holistic recovery, and yes -- even academic success.

Most people can remember their most life changing moments and the saddest experience that dramatically impacted their childhood. For me, there were two. The first was the day I watched my mother make crack cocaine and smoke it in front of me. At first I didn't think she knew I saw her as I peered down the hall and watched her reflection through the mirror while she sat on bed. I found out the hard way that she knew I was there when she said, "I hope you learned something..." I went back to my room, got in the bed, cried in the darkness and said, "God, if this is how my life is going to be, please kill me." I was about eleven years old.

The second experience that changed my life is one I had mentally suppressed until recently and I'm not sure what exactly jogged my memory. It was after my mom lost her job because of drug and alcohol addiction. Everything we owned was packed away in a backyard shed at my grandparents' house. It became a symbol to me of what drugs had done to my life and my mother's life. My mother wasn't around very often. She would come around when she needed something and then disappear for months at a time.

I ended up moving in with my grandmother and for the next four years I slept on the couch or on the floor in the living-room with all of my belongings in the hallway closet. That closet did more than store my belongings -- it held my dreams, fears, and at times soaked up my tears. Since the living room was my bedroom I never had much privacy. The only place I could go that was my own was the hallway closet. When I was sad, afraid for my mom or wanted to cry without anyone knowing something was wrong, I would hide in the closet.

In the closet I'd sit on the floor with a pillow and cry, pray, dream and hope that life would get better. Sometimes I'd daydream or cry myself to sleep. Hours would go by until I'd hear someone ask "Where's Romal?" Sometimes I'd respond and other times I'd stay silent to be left alone or to see if they cared enough to keep looking for me. My grandmother was the only person who knew about my secret place. She'd come wake me up when it was time to eat or if she thought I'd been hiding too long.

The closet was a place where I found peace. It was a place where I could hide from judgment, ridicule, rejection. I could cry, dream, hope and pray. A lot of children are victims of circumstance resulting from the poor judgment or emotional frailty of adults, and like me, these kids grow up with a secret place. A place they can identify as their own and a peaceful place where they can try to make sense of their emotions and experiences.

As adults who have experienced our own childhood pains, whether it be similar to what I went through or something entirely different, our job is to look for these kids hiding in the closet, identify with what they are feeling, share our experiences of overcoming and walk with them out of those dark places.

We, as advocates, cannot begin to address academic success, prevent dropouts, or entirely close the achievement gap until we address the mental and emotional needs of the many children in our communities who are hurting. Until we begin to rescue these children, our efforts will be incomplete and many will continue to find peace in dark places and eventually giving up on their dreams.