MINNEAPOLIS - Mauri Melander Friestleben hadn’t driven into the heart of north Minneapolis in years when she was assigned to lead Lucy Craft Laney Community School at Cleveland Park, first as assistant principal, then as principal, a post she has now held for six years.
It wasn’t by mistake.
Friestleben intentionally avoided her childhood neighborhood, especially N. 33rd Ave. and Morgan Ave., just three blocks from the school, a corner of her life too painful to revisit.
Friestleben, 42, spent the first few months of her life in foster care.
“This is a very emotional place for me,” said Friestleben, pointing to a one-bedroom apartment in the top level of a home she lived in with her mother.
Friestleben’s mother is white, her father is black, and when her parents met in college, they kept her birth secret from their own families. Their relationship strained with the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy.
“No matter the pain, I will always be thankful to my mom for keeping me, now, the things happened after that, they made me who I am today,” said Friestleben, through tears.
Friestleben was at times left in the care of neighbors. One home she remembers as a loving refuge, but she also spent some time in another home on her block, what she describes as a "dark" home.
“To think what they did to children in that house and me being one of those children, is still a difficult pill for me to swallow. All the people coming in and out of that house were so dark, and the things they did to me or watched do to me, or allowed being done to me are things they will have to deal with in life,” said Friestleben.
Between the ages of three and five, she endured severe sexual abuse while in the care of those neighbors.
Friestleben looks at a photo from her fourth birthday party. She smiles in pigtails, clutching her cake, with a candle perched on top. Her grin hid the height of her abuse. She carried physical symptoms and scars on her body, searing reminders of her pain.
“You know who I was most angry with was God. Because to me, my mom did not have the capacity to change my circumstances, but I always thought He did,” said Friestleben.
Friestleben spent much of her childhood coping with the anger over surviving such severe trauma.
“So, when I got the assignment for Lucy Laney, I was like, ‘Wow, God, of all the places in north Minneapolis, why would you have me a stone’s throw away from the most difficult childhood experiences?’ I also know that this is not coincidence I am back where that pain emanating from, because it stronger, it makes me better and it makes me able to deeply identify with my students and my families,” she said.
An estimated 90 percent of the students at Lucy Craft Laney Community School live in poverty, and Friestleben knows that with those circumstances, many of her kids endure trauma as she did. When she sees the same pain, hollowness, desperation in their eyes, she offers what she needed – love.
“I probably should not be standing before you, maybe not alive, there were many dark days when I thought -- I don’t want to live this life. Anyone would expect someone like me who went through that or other children going through that to be broken, unhealable, damaged goods that will never overcome, never survive, definitely never be successful,” said Friestleben.
Pursuing education put Friestleben on a new path, graduating from the University of St. Thomas when she had a baby girl herself at the age of 20. Today, she has two daughters and just this summer, married for the first time.
Her relationship with her mother is healing.
After six years as principal, her students, who historically had among the lowest state test scores in the district, are making gains on standardized tests.
“Now I get it, that was not the end of my story,” said Friestleben. “I was able to overcome things that would break many. It bent me, but it didn’t break me.”
Now she knows, once again at N. 33rd Ave. and Morgan Ave., peering into a dark corner of her childhood, this is no mistake, because in every child that walks through the doors of 3333 Penn Avenue North, Friestleben finds her light.
“Anytime anybody sees a child that looks forlorn, lost, not taken care of, spread your arms, scoop them up, ask questions later, but love them first,” she said.
*Editor’s Note: Since the story aired, Friestleben has been overwhelmed with hundreds of messages, calls, cards, donations and visitors, all from people inspired by her story. She has heard from abuse survivors, fellow educators and students also experiencing trauma, and explains how the community has embraced her after she chose to share her painful past.