Lately I’ve been hit with several stories that need to be told. Not a Newtown, Paris or Brussels level of mega tragedies, these are more personal. Like most people, Newtown CT hit me hard. But it’s distant enough now that while I remember continuously, Newtown is not the ceaseless gut-punch like it was the first year. But that hollow feeling is creeping back, and it has finally rekindled my resolution to do what I can to make things “better”. Two stories in particular pushed me past the tipping point, Brielle and Sean are saved for last.
This is a triple-purpose post. First, to help me process the emotions. I need to verbalize these stories at some point but I’m not confident I’ll keep my emotions under control. Through these words maybe I’ll get my heart around the emotions. Second purpose, more importantly, is to trigger thinking and action. Third, to fight the risk of numbness. We cannot stop feeling.
Adam struggled in elementary school. He had stomach problems and regularly soiled his pants. And he struggled to learn. Of course, kids made brutal fun of him and the emotional issues piled up. Adam’s family moved from town to town, hoping to find a school where his problems wouldn’t be noticed and he would fit in. But his problems remained and the dream fit didn’t happen.
He finally outgrew his stomach problems, but the learning issues remained. In high school Adam made a series of “bad decisions”. He came to the realization on his own he had two possible paths. One would lead to prison, the other held some promise. He convinced his mother to help and she agreed, on the condition he was sincere and stayed the course.
They finally found out he was autistic, high-functioning but still challenged by the regular learning process. Adjustments were made, and Adam graduated. He’s been on his own since and has a decent job. Adam is committed to helping other people avoid the pain he endured.
We’re better at diagnosis and special needs now, but we don’t have bullying under control. We haven’t touched the root cause: values, ethics…anemic norms that allow bullying to take place. Identification and corrective action is too late-we need to be proactive!
Did Adam have all the support he needed? He was just a kid. Why did he have to ask for help? Why did he have to seek out the right path on his own? Adam will tell you it made him a stronger person. But how many kids would not have had the strength to make it? How many need help now and aren’t getting it, and may not be strong enough to make it through?
The Reluctant Dropout
I was working with students at the alternative high school, with young people who for whatever reason have issues with traditional education and are high risk for leaving school. Behind my desk was a life-sized poster of John Wayne with the caption “Don’t much like quitters, son.” When the Duke talks you listen up, Pilgrim…except most teenagers don’t know who he was.
“Ashley” is a 17 year old student. In the morning meeting, a teacher reported that she had asked him if he knew anything about getting paycheck loan advances. That was a big red flag, so he spent some time talking with her.
Ashley’s father had been helping her make ends meet but he left the country with his girlfriend. Her mother had been sharing the apartment and expenses but moved out, she’s no longer in the picture. Ashley’s two teenage roommates have no job, no income. She has no food, no money for car insurance or rent. She said “I don’t want to quit school, but I need to work more hours.”
True story. 17. Ashley is a good kid needing a break, her story is too close to home. Students leaving their education and their future behind is not just a big city issue, it’s right here in my small community of 15,000. This is something we can impact, and even “little” things matter.
What if we had solid personal relationships and kept in closer touch with our young people, enabling us to take proactive early action when an at-risk situation looms? Not just risk of dropping out, but worse situations. When we do come across a struggler, there must be rapid response intervention by well-trained people.
Miracle in 4th Grade
I taught Guidance for 4th-6th graders, a social and emotional development program that was usually very enjoyable and productive. But one 4th grade class in particular seemed somehow to be home to every misfit in the school regardless of grade. They were my problem children and shame on me but I honestly dreaded every day I was scheduled to be in their class.
I was to read a book on bullying to them, so they all gathered around on the floor with my chair at the head of a semi-circle. I cannot even remember what triggered the lightning strike. A few of the students offered their personal experiences with bullying and handling tough situations. Then Madison raised her hand. She is particularly disruptive and I sighed to myself thinking “here we go…” and called on her.
“I don’t talk about this much” she began, then choked up. She was new to the school that year and had few friends and I could tell she was having a hard time getting started. But then the flood gates opened and out came her short life’s story, extremely emotional because it was from the heart and you could tell she was reliving a lot of pain. So could her class mates.
Madison’s mother died when she was five. Her father was a “piece of ____” (she said the ‘bad’ word but I let it go, so did her classmates). He was never around and didn’t care about her, didn’t take care of her. She was on her own anyway so she ran away in second grade, and got a beating when she was caught. She was in and out of foster homes, none worked out, and ended up with her grandmother who didn’t care about her, was only in it for the money she got from the state.
Many of Madison’s class mates were crying by this time. I was. They took turns going to her to give her a hug, and it turned into a giant group hug. We all needed it.
I was witnessing a miracle and it had just begun. Another girl spoke up “I would have never had the guts to talk about this, but you helped me Madison—thank you!” She told her story. And another student, and another. I have never been so drained in my whole life. But it was an incredibly good feeling.
This is a somewhat happy tale, but just this chapter. There are so many failure modes in the system, and by the alleged adults in her life. Madison’s story is still being written.
The Guidance classes are intended to help kids handle deep and powerful emotions. They emphasize the importance of empathy and strong relationships. Kids want and need to really connect with their classmate peers. They need to feel safe enough to unload their deepest emotions and empathetically support each other, especially if the support is not coming from elsewhere. We’re all just walking each other home.
I’ll guarantee Madison now has twenty classmates and friends who have her back, and those problem children took a giant step toward coming together. But I realize we were lucky that day—it truly was a magical moment, sure wasn’t a light switch I flipped on. We need to develop ways to promote more genuine full-disclosure experiences like that.
Who is to ensure the progress those 4th graders made isn’t just a flash-in-the-pan? And… why don’t we offer social / emotional learning beyond elementary school? It’s needed! For Brielle….
The First Dagger…for Brielle
A little 14 year old girl took her own life last week in in my home town. This tribute was published, with Brielle’s picture: “… due to bullying and depression. Although I do not personally know her, this affects me greatly as it should any parent. She could be my child, she could be your child. She had a loving family and extended family. But, her grief from being bullied was just too strong. Words hurt. Actions hurt. Let’s all stand up for our children when enough is enough. Brielle was an organ donor and her heart went to a 10 year old little girl. What a precious gift she gave to others.”
Brielle was a beautiful young girl who had the warmest, most genuine smile you could imagine. Even in her picture, you can see the glow and spark in her eyes. This young lady was a good person, and she was so full of life. Snuffed out. Why?
Too many kids carry an unreal amount of baggage around, some of adult origin but also peer-driven. Either way, it takes a long time to break a beautiful child’s spirit. There is no responsibility more important. Why aren’t we paying attention? That we don’t take seriously our stewardship of their fragile spirits is a moral abomination, a tragedy— no other words.
Children’s physical safety, and a lifetime’s worth of mental well-being is at-risk. Even their lives can be at risk. This is small-town Iowa, the whole state leads pretty much a sheltered lifestyle. Yet, the frequency of young people committing suicide is appalling. One is too many, right?
We’re beyond “just one”.
These aren’t just anywhere examples—these are real kids in our own back yard!
Brielle Christina April 25, 2001 – March 9, 2016
April 4th, not even a month later…another child. As fate would have it I’m getting ready right now to go work with 12yo’s…a friend sent me a picture of a smiling boy that age, and his kitten. He lived and died half way across the country, so I didn’t know him. But yet I do.
Another child with such a bright smile, such a vision of hope in his eyes. How long will it be before this little boy’s picture fades away? How long will we moan about “tragedy” before going back to business as usual? I can’t let it go. Can’t.
NEED: starting at a very young age, address the faulty norms that enable any level of bullying. Rekindle tolerance, acceptance…human love they were born with…in every child. Adults need it too. We must have ZERO…not “tolerance” but capability for any kind of bullying behavior. There is lots of lip service in schools and their staff, parents, kids. Oh, we don’t allow bullying. But then we do.
Above all, we need to connect with kids—be their safety net—and connect with each other. How can we be too busy doing ‘stuff’ to pay attention when another human being, especially a child, is crying out for help, possibly for the last time?
We have time to obsess over STEM subjects to make sure there will always be enough semi-skilled workers to keep producing stuff. But we pay lip service to emotional development.
That is the tragedy. That is my greatest frustration with society and especially with education—our priorities are backwards. Brielle, Sean and every young person trying to make it home safely are why I am so consumed by this mission.
Memorial Day Update: in Colorado Springs, three teens took their own lives in one school in one week. The school had recently conducted “suicide prevention training” for kids, parents, educators. But it takes more than awareness, an occasional training event, and posters. We need to give kids and adults a reason to feel they are worth something, at a very early age and continuously after that. We need to give them (all of us) the spiritual strength to cope with what lies ahead. We need it a whole lot more than teaching how to cipher numbers and become scientists and engineers.
Most of you already know how passionate I am about young peoples’ emotional well-being. I’ve written too many times already about youth suicide and bullying. It’s something I deeply care about, and I’ve been searching for a way to make an impact. But they were always far away kids I didn’t really know. Readers are respectfully sad for a while, then we all move on. I’ll admit sometimes that’s true for myself too. All in all, young people’s emotional health in our little community appeared to be in good shape. But I’ll be in a class room tomorrow where there will be one crushingly empty desk. Knowing why it’s empty is really gonna hurt.
These are real-time reactions as Sean’s story unfolded. Some of it is from my personal journal, some was shared on a limited-access private Facebook page.
(day one) Please, thoughts and prayers for a 13yo here in my home town who is clinging to life after hanging himself. This is a young man I know somewhat, my grand daughter partners with him in science. I have taught him. This is personal, it’s up-close and it’s very, very tough.
If you have kids hug them, let them know they are loved and are very special. And speak out, lend a hand where you can.
(later, same evening) Key words and kind thoughts (in lots of friend responses) spell out a partial answer to what WE must resolve. Mostly we just need the resolve to make it a priority. Because it IS tragic, it IS an epidemic. This one hurts a lot. Not sure Sean will make it.
(day two) Not unexpected. Sean was declared brain dead last night and he was kept on life support until his organs could be harvested. Find peace.
(day three) And now, for the beginning of the rest of the story…I was at the middle school today where Sean went, a subdued day. They had a basketball game that night, Sean’s best friend wore his jersey. Sean’s dad and sister came, they were out in the hallway talking to a bunch of Sean’s friends in private, my grand daughter included. She came into the gym sobbing, the others soon followed. Sean’s family had shared some “good” news…like Brielle’s gift, a dying little girl had already received Sean’s heart.
I did not know this young man very well, just enough to make his death personal. The survivors—Sean’s family and classmates –are my concern, my grand daughter being one of the latter. We cannot resign ourselves to the notion that this just can’t be helped.
WHAT and HOW, anyone?
Why is social-emotional learning and development not our highest priority? Things like compassion and caring for each other and self, acceptance of differences, being better equipped to deal with tough emotions and on and on. It doesn’t come from lectures, it can’t be taught from a book but can only come from open, caring, close relationships and strong community. And there isn’t a standard test to measure competency. Only one measure matters—personal well-being, a good person leading a happy, satisfied, fulfilling and full life.
Whether or not it’s overtly stated, this is Mission Critical for the Collaborative initiative… we’ve got to find a way to give kids the emotional, or spiritual if you must, resiliency and strength to withstand the pressure of growing up, then of life in general.
The cornerstone to guiding kids toward maturity is social-emotional. The home environment is a good place to start, but we all need a broader inner circle that has our six any time, every time. We need a community of friends, class mates, peers, and adjunct mentors like teachers.
We need to re-connect with our humanity and we need to connect with each other too. And we CAN make an impact in our schools, if that’s the risky place we must continue to send our kids.
Where to address the “problem” is tough to know because we haven’t accurately famed the real problems. We’ve only been fixing symptoms. It’s not that people commit suicide, it’s not whatever reason drove them to the act. The real issue is “how can we help people, especially young people, become better grounded, more connected to themselves and their self-worth and self-awareness? How can we better prepare them to work their way through the tough emotions that will be bombarding them, whatever the source of those emotions?
Kids need an emotional buffer zone, not just toughness but self-confidence and self-worth. That’s partially where the strength must come from. More than anything, they need to know someone is there for them, no matter what and why. What kind of support networks, communities are lacking and how could we somehow nurture and develop them?
In the military, “got your six” means “I’ve got your back.” The saying originated with World War I fighter pilots referencing the rear of an airplane as the six o’clock position. If you picture yourself at the center of a clock face, the area directly in front of you is twelve o’clock. Six o’clock is what lies behind you. On a battlefield, your “six” is the most vulnerable. So, when someone tells you that they’ve “got your six,” it means they’re watching your back. By extension, that person expects you to have their back as well.
Kids (and big people too!) need to know they matter, that they make a difference in the world. They need purpose, vision, need a strong community. Frankly, we suck at that.
If there were some sort of magical intervention, should it even mention suicide prevention or bullying? These are outcomes, they are in the past and they can be major distractions and even counter-productive to dwell on. There’s no denying what’s driving the Collaborative effort: well-being, happiness, surviving and thriving. Should we dwell on deviant behaviors, flaws. Focus on the good—it’s human nature, we crave it. There’s bunches of social-emotional development stuff out there. What is the best way to get the right message introduced the right way, where it needs to be? And, how can we reach more than just young people?
Mainstream / traditional education has tried and pretty much failed on the S-E front. No fault: education’s priorities have been set in concrete–STEM curriculum, common core, standard test performance, academic rigor that produces measurable, standard, hard results. But our kids need help, and education needs help to give it—mostly time, resources and expertise.
We need change. Given the current state of education, employers’ need for qualified candidates with the right skills and attributes, given the fragile nature of young peoples’ emotional state, and given our social environment in general, we need change.
Social and civic issues are tearing us apart, our moral and ethical fabric is being torn to shreds. Apathy and disengagement at one extreme, modern stressed-out lifestyle and related mental and social issues at the other. We are disconnected from each other, from our environment, from our selves. We’re in desperate need of social healing and personal realignment.
We can grab hold of self-directed learning as a promising way to help save the younger generation. But the way society is imploding we can’t guarantee we’ll be able to survive for young people to reach the point where they have matured and can make a difference. Enter whole-life learning, social-emotional—human—development. To me, it’s a survival issue—survival of our way of life, survival of the race on this planet.
The ultimate quest
Critical international policy decisions and everyday exchanges between people alike are driven more by profit and power rather than finding common ground as human beings and determining what’s right for the survival of society and of the species. Government and private sector leaders…the same profit and power decision criteria. You may hear a little lip service / casual nod toward that “greater good” thing but when push comes to shove it’s all about profit and power. We don’t elect officials for their values system or their deep love for humanity, we elect (with special interest backing and clout) based on who can deliver profit.
But it all comes back to the huge need for humanity to get back in touch with our soft side, for us to reconnect as human beings with each other, to allow ourselves to get up-close and personal once again, to get back in touch with our own spiritual self. Technology has numbed us. We’re desensitized, more callous, calculating, cold.
Humans are naturally social creatures. We’re tribal, we need community, we need each other. Yet, the further we scratch and claw our way up the techno ladder the further it seems we backslide down the evolutionary chain. Most of the animal world shows more compassion than we do, even compassion to other species.
We need a world where people share core human values, where all are driven by a common purpose. Stupid me, this is my chosen passion. And I’m well aware that I need serious advice on right-sizing this mission.