Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

Don’t Leave Home Without Them: Trauma Tools

Do you remember the American Express commercials referring to first to traveler’s checks and then the Green Credit Card? Think Karl Malden. (So you know, the side image isn’t a real credit card; it is an adapted version of fake card found on the web.)

The phrase that kept repeating in advertisements in the 1970’s was: Don’t Leave Home Without (Them) It. American Express had a marketing winner. David Ogilvy of the famed advertising firm bearing his name (Ogilvy and Mather) is credited (pun intended) with creating the slogan. Apparently, when referring to traveler’s checks, it read and was said: “Don’t leave home without them.” To this day, it remains one of the most successful campaigns of all time. And, at the time, having an American Express card was something of a status symbol.

And, for the younger readers, the ad campaign was relaunched in the 2018 with Tina Fey, with a “modern adaptation” of the original phrase. The slogan morphed into “Don’t Live Life Without It.”

The phrase had such cultural cache that there are cartoons playfully showing odd places you should not go without your card; my favorite: Uncle Sam paying the US tax deficit while sitting in a restaurant with the caption as he looks at the size of the bill and reaches for his wallet: Don’t Leave Home Without It. There are memes too. A favorite: a tiera sitting on a table and the tagline: don’t leave home without it. Some aren’t funny but let’s leave folks to find those on their own. By the by, it’s well worth the search!

For me, it is like one of those songs that stick in your head. The phrase “Don’t Leave Home Without It” sits there in my brain to be kicked into action in appropriate situations. I remember when our son was young and he had this panda bear that went everywhere he (and we) went, I would say: We can’t leave home without it (meaning the panda bear, not the credit card obviously). Sometimes I’d say: Don’t leave home without your lunch, your bassoon, your homework. I’ve used that phrase a thousand times — probably more.

A Trauma Book

Now change gears with me for a moment. I have a new book coming out in June 2020. This is not my first rodeo but this book is emerging at a time when its topic is front and center — not as in relevant but as in truly at the forefront of our world. While I certainly had every intention of writing a book of relevance (that was a main goal), I had no sense that there would be a pandemic, that thousands would die in the US alone and that schools and colleges would shutter for months and months. Even as I write this, it is unclear how long schools/colleges will remain closed, although many (not all) have turned to some form of online learning. (Don’t get me started on the inequities here.)

Expressed most simply, I have written a book about trauma. It addresses how to help students who have experienced trauma succeed in education from Pre-K through College. When the book was written, trauma among students across the educational landscape was abundant. From natural disasters (fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes) to catastrophes caused by individuals (shootings, bombings, abuse, rape, sexual harassment and assault), we have a world filled with trauma. Names pop into your mind: Katrina, Parkland, Sandy Hook, Maria.

Add to that that as a nation, we have been at war for almost two decades and our military and their families have experienced wide ranging trauma. The number of Veteran suicides (more than 18 a day) is staggering.

And, while trauma plagues some communities more than others, it is in many ways an equal opportunity offender. Trauma does not keep parental death from the wealthy. Trauma does not get stopped at the door by privilege. The rich get COVID (although they may get better treatment). Trauma, in this sense, touches us all.

We have studied the effects of trauma and its symptomology on learning, although the topic is only now receiving the attention I think it deserves. The picture isn’t pretty: trauma and its accompanying symptomology impact academics, psychosocial development and physical well being in profound ways, all supported by a growing amount of empirical data including in neuroscience, biology, chemistry, psychology. Trauma literally touches our brain architecture, our nerves, our microglia, our blood, our heart and yes, our minds.

The emerging book speaks to how we can ameliorate trauma in our educational system (we can’t eradicate it — once traumatized, always traumatized). And, if we can lift the trauma burden (which often appears in an invisible backpack or more formally the allostatic load), we will help students flourish as they progress through school and later through life.

If we don’t address trauma as and when it occurs (and even if we address it), it keeps getting retriggered again and again and we pay a price for that both mentally and physically. And this job of addressing trauma is the responsibility of institution and the professionals who work with individuals and entitles who have encountered trauma. Kids didn’t ask to be traumatized; they didn’t ask for their parents. They didn’t ask for poverty or food scarcity or a hurricane or death of loved ones. Yes, traumatized individuals can and should work on self-understanding but this is one problem that they truly cannot solve on their own; at a minimum, they need reciprocity.

My new book, published by Columbia Teachers College Press, is titled: Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door: Strategies and Solutions for Educators Pre-K-College. Its cover speaks to me in ways covers have not spoken (at least to me in the past). I like the red “Stop;” I like the school door — entrance or exit. I like the backpack (the trauma holder). I like the imposing schools — schools aren’t beloved or welcoming places for all kids and their families.

Now Comes the Pandemic:

With the presence of the pandemic, the world as we knew it has changed in a myriad of ways, including education. And, those closed schools and colleges will reopen. But, schools/colleges should not be treated like light switches that we flip off and on. And, when these institutions reopen, we need to do so in ways that make sense and that are remarkably sensitive to what occurred to all involved in the Corona Gap — the term I use to describe the period between when schools started being closed and when they reopen.

While there are those who don’t think the pandemic is traumatic for students, parents, teachers, staff and administrators, I have a different view. I helped reopen an institution after 9/11 and I have been to many trauma sites. Reopening a school after a trauma (or in this case likely continuing trauma) is complex. So are trauma anniversaries.

Folks have been changed by the virus; actual or threatened illness abounds. Children have been separated from their friends. Human touch has been curtailed. Some have done successful academic work online; other places haven’t adapted well. And, we know this: for many children, being home is not a panacea despite comments from some folks (including educators) that this stay at home period is like an extended snow day. I can’t even believe these educators can say such things given the trauma symptomology that abounds. I have written elsewhere as to what accounts for their denial.

During the pandemic and stay-at-home orders, here are family struggles, drug abuse, sexual abuse, overuse of alcohol, impatience, lack of space, lack of food, lack of employment. And, in some households, parents see themselves now as teachers and have taken to directing their children’s learning. Can you hear a wee yipes here over boundaries and roles? Sure, parents can help but they are not teachers of their own children (unless there is homeschooling by choice). Quick advice: don’t interfere; let kids work with their teachers and professors on their own. And if they fail, they won’t be the only kids who experienced one tough semester or two.

The acquisitions editor at Teachers College Press was communicating with a group of us recently about the book. Who knew, I asked, that we would need to be creating trauma responsive schools and colleges across our nation — in every nook and cranny? Who knew that schools would literally shut on a dime and then we’d be left to think about reopening? Who was that prescient? Who knew? Maybe Bill Gates and some epidemiologists.

Now the acquisitions editor is one remarkably smart guy. So, when asked was he prescient, he remarked: a pandemic was the farthest thing from his mind when the book was acquired by the Press. Strangest thing to find one’s book at the center of the educational front line. Where’s my armor? To use the war analogy that is being used commonly now: we are at war with the virus and we aren’t fully armed. We weren’t ready for this war on many levels: medical, psychological, economic.

Now, my book takes on added meaning now because it really does provide a set of constructive, practical suggestions for how to reopen schools and deal with student trauma. And, with special thanks to the press and all the editors, I was able to add in entire paragraphs about and references to COVID-19. So, the book is actually up-to-the minute. Well, since things change fast, it is up to date through mid-April but that is still saying something profound.

What Does American Express Have to Do With Trauma Doesn’t Stop?

Now to my point and American Express: I want to say to folks (even trauma naysayers), this is a book that will help your students and faculty and staff and administration when you reopen. It can guide you forward, starting now as you plan. It can actually give you hands-on strategies and suggestions. And these suggestions and ideas need to be adapted to be sure; they need to be culturally sensitive and context based. They need to be atuned to community customs and needs and languages spoken. Reopening an urban school differs from reopening a rural school; colleges are different in terms of opening than public high schools. The list goes one. But, this book has what educators need and it is written in such a way that educators PreK-College can access the contents.

That got me to say, and the words literally flew out of my mouth, “Don’t Restart a School Without It.” As I said those words, that little green American Express Card and travelers’ checks popped into my head. And then I repeated the words in a different context. As I was talking to an educator, I said: Don’t restart your school without the book. In other words, Don’t Restart Schools Post-Pandemic without Trauma Doesn’t Stop at the School Door.

The words seem self-promoting at one level. Yes, I do want the book to be purchased. What author wants their book to collect dust? (OK, there are some.) But, like the American Express phrase, the book and its new slogan are a way of avoiding difficult situations and calamities. The American Express campaign wanted to make sure folks could travel and not lose their money or have trouble getting foreign currency. Early on, there were not cash machines on every corner when one traveled. And, paying for things in foreign currency could be tricky. And, every traveler knew that folks would accept American Express travelers checks and later the Green Card. And, if there was any trouble, American Express had offices abroad and international phone numbers. And, if you were robbed, your travelers check could be replaced. Indeed, extensive foreign travel was new back then and so the American Express items created a safe tool. (Forget for a moment how much money American Express made on the float and then the unused travelers checks that sat in drawers for months and years — unused but they did provide security. Astounding really.)

Restarting a school post-pandemic is something new also. It has not been done before in most of our lifetimes. We have not had massive school closures nationwide for extended periods in the past 50 years at least if my history is accurate. So, this is tricky stuff. This isn’t easy. There aren’t guideposts for everyone to follow. It’s like being in a foreign land without the right language and the right currency. Most folks are not trauma skilled; creating a trauma responsive school for newly traumatized and retriggered kids is not in their common wheelhouse.

So, this book is sort of like travelers checks from decades ago: don’t travel the road to reopening schools without them. Perhaps educators can manage perfectly well without the book. Some educators may have this all planned out and their experiences and instincts may be spot on and they may have been trauma responsive (with or without the label pre-pandemic). But, it is not a bad thing to have right there beside them— with all of its suggestions. And, it is steady and sturdy and well developed and based on real science and data and in the trenches experience.

Like travelers checks, Trauma Doesn’t Stop, will help educators travel down the road into a new environment in ways that will help their students (and their families and teachers and communities). And while it won’t give educators American Express cash, it will give them activities, actions and approaches (the three A’s) which will enable them to travel more comfortably.

And so I say: Don’t Reopen Schools Without It. And, here’s my own personal offer: I am only as far away as an email or a phone call if readers want to reach out. I’m not everywhere like American Express used to be. But, I am here. I’m not going anywhere. Reach out. Please don’t hesitate. I wrote the book for all our kids, to use Robert Putman’s phrase. And it is dedicated to all those kids who helped me understand how to help them not just survive but thrive.

I can be found at:

An in case you need a reminder of the origins of the phrase: Don’t Leave Home Without It, here’s the image again …. bookending this post.



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Karen Gross

Karen Gross


Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor