How an "At Risk" Teenager Taught Me That Words Do Matter


Teenagers don't see themselves at-risk. We should support them by never, ever using the adjective "at-risk" when describing a human being again. I learned this lesson in a very public way six years ago. 

I was on a community college campus that was home to a charter high school for re-covered high school dropouts. I had come to give a "you-can-do-it speech." You can be what you want to be. Your past doesn't define your future. We believe in you. Somewhere in the middle of my remarks, I referred to the students as "at-risk."

Well, that was the wrong thing to say. One young woman sat up straight, looked me dead in the eye and said, "who are you calling at-risk?" Flashes started going off in my mind. "Do I ignore her? They know they are at risk. They dropped out of high school. They are poor. Some are parents. Some have records. They know they are at-risk, don't they?" Before I could stop the flashes or myself, I said, "I don't know. You, I guess. You don't see yourself at risk?" She responded "At-risk of what?"

I had built a career and a company on serving people at-risk. I had even built a mental checklist of what defined at-riskness: poverty, juvenile record, teen parenting, low academic performance, disabled, divorced parents, foster care, homeless, runaway, drinking, drugs, smoking. Hell, I even made up the word at-riskness. And this girl checked a lot of those boxes. How could she not know she was at-risk?

She told me that just because "you were born with parents who love you and money and you went to the best college doesn't mean you are better than me." That's when it hit me; I wasn't. I wasn't born to two parents who love me. I was born with one. I wasn't born to money. I spent my early years in affordable housing. I did go to a good college but I worked two jobs and was still buried alive in student loans. If she was at-risk, so too was I and no one has the right to saddle me – or her – with that label.

Because at-risk isn't a person, it's moments in time and there are moments of risk in a lifetime that put everyone who passes through them at-risk of veering off course. Moving from elementary school to middle school is like moving from gentle rolling streams to white water rapids. A sixth grader can be swept down river before anyone even realizes he's gone. Moving from middle to high school is a danger zone for all of us. It's when we start playing with live ammo. Bodies that work, brains that don't. A little money in our pocket and a gas pedal under our feet. Then, just when we figure out how to be a teenager, we move into young adulthood when we are finally free to fly the coup and figure out how not to free-fall.

Now, the girl who taught me so much in a few seconds didn't actually bust out with, "I am precious, I am a (bleeping) treasure!" But she might as well have. That's what I heard loud and clear in my heart. I will never, ever forget her.

She taught me words matter. Labels matter. And she was right.

Heather Beaven is the CEO of The Florida Endowment Foundation for Florida's Graduates where she and her team of Treasure Hunters spend their day scouring the state for buried treasure!