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When School Fills a Gap Family Left Behind

Mercedes’ hands were firmly pressed against her ears as she walked back and forth, panting. Shutters blocked out the crisp, January daylight in the class at Lyons Community, a small public school in Brooklyn that serves sixth through 12th graders. The classroom was silent apart from the 15-year-old’s rapid breathing and the sound of her heavy Timberland boots hitting the ground, every step louder and faster. Her large, brown hair bun bounced with each of her steps.

The teacher, Jesse Alexander, closely monitored Mercedes from the corner of his eye, but didn’t approach her. He knew from experience she would likely spurn any offer of help. Any offer, except for one. After 20 minutes, Emily Rivera entered the room — the only person Mercedes ever summoned by name when she was in the midst of a panic episode. Rivera, a staff member at Lyons, firmly grabbed Mercedes’ arms. The young girl surrendered, screaming louder and faster and eventually burying her head in Rivera’s chest, clinging to her T-shirt.

“She’s my mommy,” Mercedes said about Rivera. “She’s my only mommy.”

In Rivera’s phone, Mercedes’ number is under “My daughter.” (School-Stories/Lou Marillier)

Rivera is not Mercedes’ real mother, of course. Her role in Lyons Community School shows how schools often serve en loco parentis for students with the greatest needs. Her relationship with Mercedes, although intense, is not exceptional at Lyons, where students, staff members and teachers join in advisories everyday. During those sessions that often take the shape of group therapy, students open up about their personal lives and daily struggles. As part of the school’s “restorative justice” system, students participate in justice panels and decide together about appropriate solutions for their peers’ behavior issues. With suspensions used as a very last resort, misbehaving students tend to remain within the school’s walls, if not ideally in regular classrooms.

At Lyons in particular, teachers and staff not only instruct but also serve as personal advisors to their students, who often feel that they don’t have anyone else to turn to.

Mercedes, like many other students at Lyons, found at school some of the stability and support she lacked at home. Carmen Acosta, the guidance counselor at Lyons, had told Mercedes’ aunt that if the family didn’t get her help, she would have to call the Administration for Children Services (ACS.) Mercedes’ mother previously lost custody of her at a young age due to her addiction to drugs.

“I don’t talk to my mom,” said Mercedes, which is her middle name, used to shield her identity for privacy purposes. “Emily (Rivera) treats me more like her daughter and I’m not even her daughter.”

Rivera is present for Mercedes inside and outside the school’s walls. She takes her to the movies. She goes with her to the hospital during the panic attacks. She walks her to class. She doles out copious hugs.

During the recent panic attack, Rivera eventually succeeded in having Mercedes sit down on the wooden bench in the back of the classroom that the students built earlier in the year. The “Dig” is a classroom where seven of the most challenging eighth and ninth graders study on a daily basis.

When the bell finally rang, Mercedes quivered and gasped for air. Rivera suddenly remembered Mercedes’ last episode, took her phone out of her pocket and looked for a picture. When she showed it to the young girl, Mercedes instantly calmed down. The phone displayed a picture of the Greek number II, an image Rivera knew Mercedes liked, for a reason that remained mysterious to all.

Rivera met Mercedes on her first day working at Lyons in December 2013. The young girl was out of class because of behavior problems. There were very few teachers who could handle Mercedes in class back then, and she spent most of her time walking the halls or sitting in the office. Rivera knew the school well, since she had been a student at Lyons herself four years earlier. When she arrived in the 10th grade, after having already transferred high schools twice, she was badly in need of a mentor herself.

The first person Rivera ever really opened up to was Lyons’ principal, Taeko Onishi. Also founder of the school, the energetic woman knows each of the 546 students’ names and, it seems, their birthdays as well. Onishi made Rivera sit on the staircase with her to talk — much the way Rivera does with many students now.

Rivera’s heart tattoo. (School-Stories/Marillier)

As a child, Rivera’s mother wasn’t present in her life either. As a young girl, she felt like a burden to her older sister, who ended up raising her and her brothers. So now she walks around the brick-walled corridors, with a heart tattooed on her wrist and a heart shaped silver ring, distributing her care and concern to every student who asks for it. And many do.

Mercedes is not the only girl to call Rivera her mommy–far from it. Every morning, Rivera texts or calls students around 9 a.m. to wake them up, so that they won’t be late for school.

“Take me home with you, Emily,” said Destiny, a young girl Rivera calls every morning to wake her up.

“If I had my own place, I would,” answered Rivera, who still lives with her mother. The young girl didn’t give up. “Please take me! I’ll be the best kid ever.”

But Mercedes was the only one Rivera really felt like a mother to. And she opened to Rivera much like the young girl had once opened to Onishi. “I feel like I gave birth to that girl,” said Rivera.

Jesse Alexander, who used to be Rivera’s teacher, recalled that as a student ,Rivera was already very motherly. She was also a failing student, who eventually caught up on credits with a physics essay on how pitchers throw curve balls. This year, Rivera is the regular coach for the girls’ basketball team, only adding to her unfailing popularity among the students.

Shortly after they met, Rivera and Mercedes started spending their entire school days together. Mercedes followed Rivera as she took care of paperwork or strolled around the corridors. Rivera made the young girl write a personal “Free write” everyday, and Mercedes filled up three notebooks that she covered with penguin stickers and on which Rivera wrote “Think with both your heart and your head.”

Mercedes wrote about when her mother lost custody of her and she was placed in foster care. “I will never forget how scared I was when those people came to my house,” wrote Mercedes in her notebook last February. She wrote about feeling torn apart living with a stranger, and slowly becoming comfortable. She wrote about going to school for the first time, since her mother never took her. “I remember they let me and my sister and brother finally live with my grandmother on February 15 at 4:00 on a Friday,” she wrote.

Mercedes now splits her time between her grandmother’s house, where she sleeps in the same room as her big brother, and her aunt’s and uncle’s house, where she shares a room with her two cousins who are also students at Lyons. “I love school. I’d rather be here than at home,” said Mercedes.

The kind of close relationship Rivera enjoys with Mercedes is not specifically encouraged at Lyons but is part of the culture of the school, explained Darron Burgos, the restorative justice coordinator. “If a person feels like it is something that needs to be done, we would help them through it,” he explained.

Some worry, however, that Rivera might risk burning out by getting too close with students.

“Emily stepped up and beyond, but she risks to do too much,” said Carmen Acosta, the guidance counselor who talks to Mercedes every Monday morning. She worried Mercedes would rely too heavily on Emily, instead of building relationships of her own outside the school.

On the morning after the mid-winter break, Rivera looked around on the frozen playground behind the school. It could be a lot, she said, all of these kids: too emotional for her, too exhausting. She knows she has taken on a lot. But this morning, she opens her arms to a student running to her, and screams at another student throwing ice to an unwilling comrade. She had taken the time to rest and gather forces during the holidays, she said.

She felt ready.

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