Ax tóo yéi yatee. I have it in me. That's the message former Juneau School District student Crystal Rogers had for staff of the district at their Welcome Breakfast on Thursday.
Rogers, a current University of Alaska Southeast student, introduced herself first in Tlingit. Rogers received the birthname of Yankawgé and the potlach name of Gunaaxdují Tláa as a member of the Raven-Coho clan.
Rogers shared much of her background, beginning with the birth of her and her twin sister. Rogers placed into the gifted and talented program at an early age. Her sister, while equally as smart, did not test as well, Rogers said.
"My mother had been diagnosed with major depression shortly after we were born," she said. "By the time we were in sixth grade her depression medication practically crippled her."
Being bright little girls, they didn't think they needed guidance or to follow rules, so they did whatever they wanted. It led to them experimenting with cigarettes, pot and alcohol. The middle schoolers began hanging out with high schoolers and were "on a first-name basis with everyone at JPD."
In middle school, a lot of people, including JSD staff, were concerned about the girls' future, Rogers said.
Closing in on high school, their mother had a relapse after a decade of sobriety in her battle with alcoholism, she said.
"That night my sister and I had to make a decision to call an ambulance, knowing we'd never come again if we did," Rogers said.
The twins were taken into state custody and Rogers had been in seven homes in four years of school. She eventually entered a program for at-risk youth and struggled until Laury Scandling and another teacher showed their ability to open up and let students know they cared.
"I struggled, but eventually my grades improved," she said.
The sisters worked for the state for several years before they found an opportunity to go to college in Oregon. However, they made that decision without knowing what they were getting into and dealt with class withdrawals, incomplete grades, electric shut-off notices and eviction threats.
But, a light in those shadows was a social justice theater class. Rogers is passionate about social justice issues and became an activist with fellow students and allies. She noted many students like she and her sister are still struggling today and many young Alaskans are committing suicide at an alarming rate.
"I invite you to think of how you can make a difference of what you can do," Rogers said.
She addressed the issue of whether it's OK for society to expect teachers to take on the responsibility of making a difference in a child's life. "It occurs whether it's intentional or not. Students spend a lot of their time with you. Play an active part in something that is occurring anyway."
She gave ideas for several things the district's staff should strive for: Tell the truth about history and social institutions, trust students can handle complex issues at earlier ages and tell students they matter and have the ability to make a difference in society - often.
Rogers recently requested her student record and found a letter signed by teachers and administrators in middle school to the judge involved in the state custody issue.
"There was an urgent tone and it was describing our downward slide," she said. "Toward the end it talked about how smart we were."
It said they knew how talented the girls could be.
"Wow. They saw that in me when I was at one of the lowest points in my life," Rogers said. "Why didn't they tell me that? Imagine if they had."
Other suggestions she gave were to tell students, especially Native students, they need to go to college and give them direction on how to get there. Instill a sense of social responsibility - tell them, teach them, model it.
"Try to teach these students as if they were your own," she said. "You would have the highest expectations and want them to succeed."
Rogers recently moved back to Juneau because her mother has terminal cancer. She decided to attend UAS and was glad she did because it's one of the only places she can learn her native language.
Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich reflected on Rogers' words.
"We stand here today knowing which students in kindergarten or preschool we will struggle the most with," he said. "We talk about the incredible capacity in this room and the leverage that capacity has to create new solutions."
Gelbrich said there will come a day in the district where they won't be able to tell which students will struggle based on race, poverty or other considerations.
"Data will come out soon that we've made progress district-wide in terms of our student success," he said. "We should celebrate that. We shouldn't just celebrate success, but celebrate the fact we can create it."
Gelbrich also urged teachers to focus on each student and have faith in them.
"We need to make sure we can see the star in every student," he said. "If you can't see the star in them, they know it."
Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or firstname.lastname@example.org.