No child left behind. So easy to preach. Yet my entire childhood I felt like I was left behind, ignored, helpless, and unworthy. I experienced and witnessed things no child should ever have to. Professionals call it childhood trauma. I call it scars. The pain can heal over time, but I will forever have the scars. I can cover them up with makeup or a bright smile, but deep down my heart still aches.
So unworthy of anything good. My mother worked very hard to provide for my siblings and me. She had my brother at the age of 16 and me at 18. Later she had three other children. We were on public assistance and moved almost every year. I attended about eight different schools from elementary through high school.
At one point, we didn’t have housing. We ended up in a shelter. My mom knew how much my brother and I hated to be there. Some nights she would take us on joy rides until it got closer to the last hour before the shelter doors locked. On a special day, she would pick us up from daycare and as I stared out the window, I would sometimes catch a glimpse of mom staring and smiling at me in her rearview mirror. Then, she’d pull up to a hotel for us to stay the night. For me, our mother’s love was her happiness always beaming through from seeing us happy.
Those days were the best—my brother and I grinning from ear to ear at one another; high-pitched squeals that we could barely hold in. I remember jumping from bed to bed with my brother, and the laughs that filled the room. How we got to watch our favorite cartoons the entire night. How happy we were to not have strangers sleeping footsteps away and to have a comfortable bed—even if it was for one night only. We learned to live in the moment. Tomorrow’s problems were for tomorrow, and tomorrow was never promised.
As perfect as these small moments seemed, I still remember hearing my mom cry through the bathroom door. Some days I would sit outside that door. I wouldn’t bother her. I just didn’t ever want her to feel alone, even though she may not have known I was there. We always had each other. Until we didn’t.
Life as a Teenager
Freshman year of high school was horrible, and I hated going to school. One group of upperclassmen girls in my first-period gym class always bullied me. The anxiety got so bad that I would get sick every morning before school. I would be so sick and scared that I wouldn’t go to first-period gym at all. I came to school late almost every single day, which resulted in me failing gym in ninth grade.
Mind you, I was always athletic. I loved running and even did it for fun. I was the step team captain and a cheerleader. But my gym teacher made it clear that I would be a failure if I kept this up. I asked for a schedule change so many times. I was ignored. When these girls could no longer mess with me in gym class, they ended up having the same lunch period as me mid-year. One day they came to my lunch table and knocked my tray over and tried to jump me. From that day on, I spent my lunch periods in a bathroom stall. I had to stay out of the hallways, or I would be written up for skipping lunch. So helpless.
That same year was the great recession. My mom lost her job followed by us losing our home. My mom made the tough decision to split us up. She took my three younger sisters with her to live at a family member’s house. Her decision was extremely hard on me because my little sisters were like my own children. My older brother moved in with friends. I went to live with my best friend. This would be the last new school I would attend. I got my first job at the age of 12, and I have worked ever since. I made just enough money to pay for my phone bill. Not having enough money for school field trips, homecoming, prom, senior pictures, or school lunch always made me feel left behind.
Attending a New School
Sophomore year I walked into the doors of Dominion High School in Sterling, VA. I was greeted by the principal. He didn’t just say hello. This man knew my name, how many siblings I had, and what school I was from. In an instant, I went from feeling ignored to feeling seen. My principal was Dr. John Brewer, and he had a huge impact on my life. He set the tone for the whole school, and he took every opportunity to ensure that the faculty and student body embodied the values we set together as a community.
At one point, I was really struggling with my grades. At Dominion, we had something called “clubhouse,” where all students would meet with an assigned teacher in a specific classroom. During clubhouse, we would write our current grades down on this sheet of paper and next to it the grade we wanted to have by the end of the quarter along with any other goals. It was called our goal sheet. We would also build relationships, and your clubhouse teacher was supposed to be someone you could hopefully feel safe enough with to come to if you were ever in need.
That goal sheet had to be with you at all times during the school day. When walking in the hallways, you could bet that Dr. Brewer would stop you at some point and ask to see yours. I still remember how nervous I was when he would ask for mine. I was nervous because no one at home ever checked my grades. He would ask why a grade was low and what I needed to do to reach my goal. He reminded me that I had a future ahead of me and nothing could stop me—except me. During those moments I went from feeling unworthy to worthy.
I was a cheerleader all through high school. There were times after practice or Friday night games when I would sit in front of the school not really sure if I would have a ride or not. Dr. Brewer would wait, though. He would walk around asking everyone if they had a ride or if they needed one. He would come up to me with his usual “Missss Dixon, do you have a ride”? I always said yes.
There were times in the morning when my best friend and I hurried to our bus to make it to school on time. Other times we were literally steps from it and watched as it drove off without us. Then we’d walk back home to call my best friend’s mom and say we missed the bus—again. We would get excited thinking we had a free day at home, when there would be a knock on the door. I would open the door and hear, “Missss Dixon, let’s get you to school.”
I always thought to myself that Dr. Brewer must be so tired. I really don’t know how he does what he does. That same day I missed the morning bus, I would need to attend an after-school clinic to discuss what steps I could take to not miss the bus again and arrive on time to school.
I still remember the days leading up to my high school senior trip. All my friends were so excited. But I didn’t have the money to pay my senior dues, so I knew I couldn’t go on the trip. The day of the trip, while all the seniors were gathered together, I snuck away and got on my bus to go home. I was looking down on my phone when I heard this deep voice at the front of the bus call out, “Missss Dixon.” I remember everyone on the bus was looking back at me as I walked to the front of the bus and Dr. Brewer walked me off and asked where I was headed. I explained that I wasn’t going on the trip because I couldn’t pay my dues. He turned to me and said, “We would never leave you behind.” I went on the trip.
Until I came to Dominion, I never thought I could enjoy school or that I would even graduate. But as graduation day neared, I knew I would miss being a student there. With support from the staff and Dr. Brewer, I was able to walk across that stage in June of 2012. I received my diploma and a card, which Dr. Brewer writes to each senior no matter how big the graduating class.
When I read mine, I realized that he believed in me from the first day I walked into the doors of Dominion. Dr. Brewer is the epitome of an amazing school leader, and I am forever grateful.
Thank you, Dr. Brewer!
Ashleigh Dixon is a Customer Care Center representative at NASSP and a graduate of Dominion High School in Sterling, VA.