Do Our Kids Know It’s Okay to Not be Okay?

Last August, I read Kate Fagan’s What Made Maddy Run, and was immediately overcome with emotion. Fagan describes Madison Holleran as the All-American teenage girl, the girl every other girl wants to be. Maddy is beautiful and popular, a straight-A student, and a state champion soccer player and track star. She is the epitome of what every teenage girl desires to be. Madison was an active Instagram user, consistently posting photos of her seemingly perfect life. In fact she was so good at portraying herself as the perfect, high-achieving, popular teenager, it seemed her family and her closest friends had no idea just how badly she was struggling. Within months of starting her college career at the University of Pennsylvania, as a Division 1 cross country and track athlete, she walked up the steps of a nine story parking garage in downtown Philadelphia, and jumped, taking her life at the age of nineteen.

I was haunted by Maddy’s story for many reasons, but probably the biggest reason was that I saw myself at the same age. In the summer before my senior year of high school, I started what would be a 7-year battle with anxiety, depression, and severe anorexia. I had always been a high achieving kid. I was a straight-A student and I excelled athletically, receiving multiple Division 1 scholarships to play softball. However, looking back, I never felt comfortable in my own skin, but I hid it well. I did eventually recover, but had spent most of those years wishing I were not alive. I can’t fully explain why my story has a different ending than Maddy’s, but that’s the thing about mental illness. Each story charts its own course.

Maddy’s story also made me think of my students. I teach Chemistry at an all-girls Catholic high school, and many of our students have an intense desire, almost an innate need, to achieve and succeed. Many of our high-achieving students are terrified of making mistakes and failing. A high stress approach to education is the status quo, and a high GPA and acceptance at a top-rated college are the ultimate goals.

My concern is whether or not we are teaching our children the value of learning from mistakes and failure. My most important life lessons were learned from picking myself back up after getting knocked down a few times and coming back even stronger. Life doesn’t always follow that ideal path that we hope for, and it is crucial to know that those plans can be recalibrated and that perhaps a different path in life is, in fact, our destiny, or God’s plan even. Many kids follow a particular path because of appearances and expectations from others. Maddy, for instance, thought her family and friends expected her to attend an Ivy League school and to play a Division 1 sport, but she was miserable and afraid to let anyone down. She spent her energy trying to maintain her image rather than directing her energy to making the necessary changes to get healthy.

How can we let our kids know that it is okay, even important, to fail? How can we make sure that our children know that it is okay to not be okay? We should do a better job of educating children on the signs of anxiety and depression and letting them know that it is okay to ask for help and how to ask for help.

In the age of social media, appearance is everything to kids. Even adults fall victim to comparing our own lives to what we envision others’ lives to be, simply based on what we see and read on Facebook and Instagram. What we see is only the highlights reel and not a true representation of real life. We need to make sure our kids understand this and find ways to be more real with their friends and family. As the adults in their lives, we need to model this and talk to them about it. Otherwise, they will grow up to believe that asking for help when they need it is a sign of weakness and a blemish on that image they have worked so hard to craft. Talk about your bad days. Encourage them to share the good AND the bad. That’s what makes us human. That’s what makes us “us”. Perfect is unrealistic and, frankly, pretty boring. Our flaws and quirks and idiosyncrasies make us interesting and relatable.

The feeling that I remember most from my darkest days when I was struggling in my late teens and twenties was feeling completely alone. I thought for sure that no one around me could possibly be feeling so incredibly depressed. I was certain that my peers thought that I was a total freak. What I needed so badly to hear was that others had struggled with depression or anxiety or anorexia, and that it was okay to ask for help and that I could and would get better. I needed to hear that this was not how I would feel for the rest of my life. I think Maddy needed to hear this as well. This is why I make sure to share my story as an adult and let my children and my students know that mental illness is more common than they think and that it is okay to let someone know if they are struggling. The story of Madison Holleran was a wake-up call for me, as a mother and an educator. I will forever carry Maddy’s story in my heart, in the hopes that both of our stories can help those who are struggling to realize that they are not alone, that recovery is possible, and that life after recovery is so incredibly beautiful and worth the fight.

Children Are Calling For Help – We Need To Hear Them

It’s time to stop pretending that everything is okay. We’re trying to find solutions to specific issues like teen suicide and school shooting, but when are we going to realize that these are simply symptoms of much deeper problems. Our problem isn’t that a small number of children are struggling to cope with life in today’s world. The problem is most children are struggling to cope with life, and for a few, the only solution they can see to escape the suffering is to kill themselves and others. For a child to take such an extreme action, they must have built up a tremendous amount of anger and fear over many years of their short lives, and we’re letting it happen.

I’m tired of people justifying horrible societal norms in the name of some virtuous agenda. If you are attacking another person, tearing down someone’s beliefs, or using your platform as justification to refuse to listen, you are adding to the problem. If you are so busy that you don’t have time to question the long term outcomes of your actions, you are adding to the problem. If you are unable to hear the children all across our country currently screaming for help, you are adding to the problem.

We need to stop. The way we’re currently living our lives is not working. We need to take a step back and ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in. We need to do better than choosing one side of a political debate and fighting for it. We need to realize that to make any improvements in this world, we need to work together on some common goals. Children across this country are screaming for help. Just because they don’t know the solutions to our problems doesn’t mean they can’t help us understand what the problems are.

Jesus Christ taught us how to bring love and compassion into moments of grief, division, and despair. He taught us how to come together for the betterment of the whole community. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t simply mean attending church every Sunday. Following Jesus requires that we develop the qualities he modelled for us within our own lives. He taught us that no matter how dark the world around us, love can guide us to the light. It’s time to reject the rules that are guiding us into darkness so we can come together and write new rules that will guide us into the light. Let us hear the children across this country that are screaming for our help, and come together to create a future we can all believe in.

Social Contract Following Parkland

In February and March, the world started to unravel again. 14 students and 3 teachers were shot in Parkland, FL. Two teenagers from Wilmington, DE died, one by suicide. Another school shooting occurred 150 miles from my school. While I didn’t have answers for how to help students navigate these tragedies, I tried to listen and understand. Eventually I encouraged the students to stand together on the platforms of love and unity by writing the below social contract. 263 of our students (40% of all students) signed this contract along with teachers and administrators. It seemed to help. Over the next 2 weeks I will share some letters I wrote to help me process all of these difficult events that lead to the creation of The Loving Lives Revolution.

Social Contract:

While the Parkland shooting is frightening and devastating, I refuse to allow my life to be overpowered by fear, anger, or helplessness. I understand that there are many factors in this world that I cannot control, but I will not let these outside factors define what my life is about. When I am scared, I will reach out to friends, family, and other adults who can support me to borrow their courage to face my daily challenges with an open heart and open mind. When I am strong, I will provide support and friendship for anyone who needs it. When confronted by adversity, I will join hands with others in my community to face these difficulties together. When a community member offers an opposing opinion from my own, I will listen with an open mind, share based on my best understanding, and unite over the common goal of love. I know that we can build a healthy and inspiring future for our community if we work together. Every day, I will invest my energy into creating a positive future full of optimism, compassion, and innovation for the benefit of all people.

Working Together to Find Solutions

While my students and I celebrate small successes in building a loving classroom environment, we know that the world outside is getting worse. The world is full of anger, fear, divisiveness, and blame, and these realities are leading us in the wrong direction. We need to come together, listen to one another, and discover new solutions together. Instead of going in circles by recycling the same strategies and proposals, let’s work together to invent new comprehensive solutions. Let’s try many different solutions, learn from our mistakes, and modify our plans to be more effective so we can reach every individual in our communities. Let’s unite on the common goal of building safe and hopeful communities centered on truth and love.

I would like this blog to be a think tank with students, parents, and teachers sharing their thoughts and feelings, proposing possible solutions, and implementing action plans together. Let’s look more deeply at our goals, discuss possible paths for achieving those goals, then follow through on those plans. The biggest obstacle is that we must construct proposals that promote the best interests of all parties. We must be willing to sacrifice personal gain for the wellbeing of the whole. We must have faith that asking hard questions with a loving heart will result in a positive outcome. We must bring hope, compassion, and trust back into our communities.

Next week I hope to start posting input from other people in our community. If you have something you would like to share, please email it to me at ryanshelton7@yahoo.com and I will post them in the order they are received. I look forward to a positive, healthy, and constructive conversation.

Uniting a Community

A school community consists of 4 major groups: students, teachers, administrators, and parents. After the faculty meeting, Loving Lives had the support teachers, administrators, and about 10% of the students. So how could we share this message with the entire student population and their parents? Would the students want to take ownership of this message? We had a big brainstorming session and my students decided that they wanted to make a video. Their 2 minute video was posted on the high school Facebook page in December.

Considering our school only has 650 students, we were excited to see 5 times that many views of the video meaning that most of the students, many parents, and many beyond the school community took the time to watch the video. For a few days there was a buzz about the video within our school. Our Loving Lives message was out there, but how could we put it into practice?

Do Other Adults Support Loving Lives?

Before presenting Loving Lives to my students, I felt isolated in my thoughts. With the support of my students, the teenage rebel in me was inspired. As a teenager, I always felt like it was me versus the world. With a privileged upbringing, this wasn’t actually the case, but I always found the defiance to be kind of fun. So here I was again, plotting ways to overthrow the system when a younger (but more mature) teacher asked if I had thought about sharing the presentation with Administration. In my rebel head, I thought, “The Administration will never go for this. I’ve got to sneak up on them and trick them into supporting this. There’s no way I could just ask them for their support.” With a good nights sleep, I remembered that I’m 36, not 16, so I followed my friend’s advice, and shared the slides with administration.

I was simply asking permission to share the slides in the faculty newsletter, but the administrators liked my slides so much that they created a faculty meeting the following week (which never happens) so I could present to a live audience. Suddenly I felt nervous; Was I doomed to fail because teachers were being asked to stay after school for some lame faculty meeting? Teachers are free to leave school at 3pm, so I expected most teachers to rush for the door as quickly as possible after my presentation (which ended at 3:05pm), but almost everyone stayed engaging in Q and A and small group discussion until 3:45 and beyond. I couldn’t believe it! I must have really been on to something my community needed. But how could I keep up the momentum?

The slides for the faculty meeting are below. I started by giving the same presentation that I gave to the students, followed by some student survey results and some content specifically for the teachers. I also added some teacher survey results collected following the meeting.

Teacher Presentation Slides

 

A Call For Action

One week in October of 2017, a student at a local school committed suicide and a man responsible for a shooting a few hours south of my school was on the run somewhere nearby causing a school lockdown. Unlike 2015, this time I chose to act. I don’t know how to stop depression or prevent shootings, but my brain doesn’t work that way. Instead of considering how to stop bad things, I start pondering how to create good things. I figure out how to get kids to think so we can develop solutions together. If individuals and communities are invested in creating positive change, can there be any time left for anger, worry, fear, stress, depression, or violence?

So the night after the lockdown, I nervously prepared a presentation to share with my physics students the next morning. I guessed at their life goals and questioned the outcomes of these goals. I shared how I would reframe these goals, and encouraged students to pursue my positive vision for the future. I’m 36 years old and my students are 16 and 17, so I was pretty sure my presentation would crash and burn. Their world’s are so different from mine or the one I grew up in, so how could I possibly share a personal perspective following a teen suicide and local shooting that struck a positive cord with my students?

While I anticipated failure, I knew that I had to try something, so I swung for the fences, and it worked! Each of my 4 classes received it slightly differently, but all the responses were very positive. My students were extremely thankful that I was willing to talk to them about these real life struggles. They appreciated that I was willing to take a step back and question what was causing teens to feel unhappy. They were thrilled that I was willing to put their mental wellbeing ahead of their course work, at least for one day. Most importantly, my students learned that I care about them and that I want to help. This was a start. Click the link below to see my presentation.

Presentation Link

The Loving Lives Story Begins in 2015

2.5 years ago, one of my high school students was impacted by a suicide in her family. I was a first year teacher, and I didn’t know what to say or do to support her. The first time I had her in class after the event I asked her how she was doing, she said she was okay, and I nodded in support. Then I thought that the best thing I could do was to help her return to her normal routines. I tried to pretend like nothing was wrong, and that the best path forward was to continue with the school curriculum. What else could I do?

A week later I was talking to a fellow teacher who also had this student, and I asked her opinion of how the student was doing. This teacher had a better relationship with the student, and had learned that none of the student’s teachers were talking to her about it. It seems like we all had come to the same conclusion; It was not our place to get involved with such a personal matter. But then I started to wonder, who was helping this student navigate this difficult time? By not talking to her, were we sending the message that students needed to figure out how to navigate these situations on their own? Was this in the best interest of the students?

This episode has stuck with me over the years. I concluded that I would not force any of my future students to face such a difficult time alone again. I didn’t know what I was supposed to say or if there was a “correct” way to support a grieving student, but if a similar situation ever presented itself, I needed to try to help. I could let the student know they were not alone. I could listen patiently and peacefully as they shared what was on their mind. I could be honest. After this event in 2015, I knew I had failed to meet this challenge successfully. The next time, I vowed that I would try harder. Unfortunately, this was not a one time event.