Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Principal Lied As Peyton Died

"Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.  Those who can't teach, counsel.  
Those who  can't counsel, administrate."- Matt Groenig, School Is Hell

On October 8, 2014, my 13 year old son came home from his day of classes at Forbes Middle School in Georgetown, Texas, went to his room and hung himself.  Five days later on October 13th, he passed away from his injuries. Peyton's suicide was not the result of any one thing, but a lethal combination of many.  He had been bullied relentlessly throughout his time in school.  He had ADHD which made it hard for him to concentrate in class.  He also dealt with depression and anxiety.  All of this combined made it difficult for him to cope with life.

The day before he hung himself, Peyton had reported another student at the school for harassing him. Peyton was sitting in the cafeteria before school and reading a book, allegedly (legal word there), a student had approached Peyton and told him that he was stupid for reading.  Peyton, never one to back down from an argument refused to give in, and was told that he was stupid for going to church and believing in Christ.  After having enough of this less than civil discourse, Peyton went to the office to report this student. Unfortunately, he was relatively new to the school, and (supposedly) because of the angles of the cameras in the cafeteria, the administration told Peyton that they were not able to identify the student in question.  For a student that had been harassed by others for everything from his red hair to his teeth, this event helped put him over the top.

During the five days that Peyton battled for his life, I sat next to his bed in the hospital wanting to find the student who harassed him, drag him out of class, and proceed to kick his ass from one end of the school to the other, and then back again.  After Peyton's death, but before his funeral, I had several days alone to think about the situation.  I thought about the student and if he knew he had played a role in my son's death, and if he knew, how was he dealing with it?  In the "Let's pretend suicide only happens in other places" world of public education, there was a good chance this child, if unknown, could  be wandering the halls with the soul crushing guilt of being responsible for the death of another human being.  After the funeral, I contacted Peyton's principal asking if they had identified the student that had harassed Peyton.  My hope was that they had, and were getting him the help that he would need in the upcoming days, weeks, and months.  Sadly, I was told no, as was Peyton's mother when she went in to collect his belongings.

For the last two and a half years, I, as well as Peyton's mother, have worried about this anonymous child.  She actually works in the high school that child would be attending.  Imagine her telling the class about Peyton and what happened to him, while that child sat in the class.  You would think that Peyton's principal would tell the high school principal about this student, but based upon what I discovered, it doesn't seem like that would have happened.  

One night, as I was sitting in my Survivors of Suicide meeting, we began talking about how our loved one's death were handled by the police and other authorities.  Some of the members talked about how they have never looked at the coroner's report of the death certificate even though they have had them for several years.  I began to think.  I had the death certificate from Travis County that clearly listed the cause of death as suicide, but I had never seen the police report.  The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see the report, so I went online and requested a copy of the report from the Georgetown Police Department.  

Once my request was received, I was contacted by a representative of the police who questioned whether I really wanted to see this.  Although I knew it would be painful, I had to see it, so it was eventually emailed to me.  It showed up in my email in the morning.  I was alone in the coaches office. I downloaded the file to my laptop, nervously opened it and began to read.  

The report was very clinical, unbiased and straightforward.  As I went from page to page, I didn't discover any new revelations until I got to page 8 of the report.  It was there that the narrative took a dramatic turn.  As I stated before, both Peyton's mother and I were under the impression that the student who harassed Peyton had never been found, but according to the investigator, "[the principal] stated that he was able to identify the student and spoke with him about the incident. [the principal] stated that the child claimed that he was not making fun of Peyton`s religion and that they were having a discussion about religion that turned into an argument but they both walked away from the discussion."  

I was stunned, flabbergasted, flummoxed.  I sat there staring at the screen reading that line over and over hoping that I had read it wrong.  I even called Peyton's mother to check and make sure that the principal had told us the same thing, that we had both been told by the principal that he had never identified the child in question.  Now I know we had both been lied to by the very person that we had entrusted with our son.  The person that was supposed to act in the best interest of my son, and every other child that walked through the doors of that school, was nothing more than a lying sack of sh*t.  A man so unwilling to risk his job or show a backbone that he took path of least resistance by taking the word of the bully over the student that had been victimized. Because after all, it was easier to close the door and put this whole ugly incident behind him.

I was, and still am, pissed off.  How could this a$$hole allow us to believe a lie all this time?  Yes, I wanted to kick his ass for lying to me, for allowing me to suffer for this time.  I wanted to take legal action against him and the district for this and make them pay out the ass for what they had done to us, but the statute of limitations had expired.  I wanted to call the district superintendent to let him know what kind of person they had working for them, but by this time, the principal had retired, so once again, there was nothing I could do.  

So that brings me to the present.  I am left with no discourse except to tell Peyton's story, and to help others learn from my story.  To those out there whose children are being bullied and harassed at school, hold the administrators accountable.  Too often I have heard stories of school districts that are more concerned with public perception than the truth.  It is easier to shame and blame the victim than to hold the guilty accountable.  Because bullying can carry criminal charges, administrators and districts try their best not to present it as bullying so that it doesn't show up on a police blotter, and the public perception of the school and the district are not tarnished.  

In my home state of Texas, the law states, "Texas Educ. Code § 37.001 Texas defines bullying as any written, verbal or physical act that physically harms a student or damages a student's property, or that creates an intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment." Further more, according to Sec. 37.0832. BULLYING PREVENTION POLICIES AND PROCEDURES. (a) In this section, "bullying" means, subject to Subsection (b), engaging in written or verbal expression, expression through electronic means, or physical conduct that occurs on school property, at a school-sponsored or school-related activity, or in a vehicle operated by the district and that:
(1) has the effect or will have the effect of physically harming a student, damaging a student's property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of harm to the student's person or of damage to the student's property; or (2) is sufficiently severe, persistent, and pervasive enough that the action or threat creates an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment for a student.
(b) Conduct described by Subsection (a) is considered bullying if that conduct: (1) exploits an imbalance of power between the student perpetrator and the student victim through written or verbal expression or physical conduct; and (2) interferes with a student's education or substantially disrupts the operation of a school.

Obviously Peyton felt strongly enough that what had happened that day fit the parameters of bullying and harrassment that he felt it was necessary to turn to the principal hoping that he would be able to escape the harassment and bullying that had followed him from school to school.  Unfortunately, he turned to a man at the end of his career that, in my opinion, was just hanging on for his retirement by avoiding conflict and doing as little to rock the boat as possible. A man willing to take the word of a child that purposely harrassed a total stranger in the cafeteria for reading a book.  This was a man who regarded my son's death as an inconvenience such as one would regard a mosquito in the bedroom at night. 

One of the main criticisms of the bullying law in Texas was by administrators claiming that it would create more paper work for them, and perhaps he didn't relish the thought of actually having to his job that day.  Sadly, when the law was enacted in 2011, it gave each district the latitude to enact their own code provided it aligned with state standards,  Some schools went above and beyond, while others did the bare minimum necessary to get by, and even though they had adopted policies, they chose, and still choose, to avoid enforcing them at all costs.  

As the school year begins to wind down, I can't help but think about all the students who have had to endure bullying day after day.  How many of them turned to the people that were supposed to help them in a time of need only to be ignored or told its just part of being a kid?  How many students faked illness or just skipped to avoid yet another day of name calling, punching, or tripping?  How many parents have pulled their children out of schools because it was easier for the administration to shame the victim than follow the law?  How many parents had to bury their child because they could no longer deal with the idea of yet another day of abuse?  How many administrators continue to lead ineffectively, yet still keep their job because they are able to produce high test scores and low police reports?  `How many more families will have their lives destroyed because it meant too much paper work to actually deal with the real problem?  If the answer is even one, then that is too damn many. 

Author's Note:  Last night, after getting home from my Survivors of Suicide Meeting, I was putting my keys and wallet on my dresser, and I looked at  Peyton's urn sitting in front of me. As I am staring at the only remnant of my son, there is a former principal out there enjoying his retirement. He either lied to grieving parents or the police to save his ass and preserve his retirement.  I hope his sleep was better than mine.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

To The Students Of Pearland High School:

“You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

To The Students Of Pearland High School:

I heard of your loss , and it breaks my heart.  I didn't know Hannah, but from all accounts, she was an amazing person, that she possessed multiple talents, was kind and generous with others, and beloved by those that knew her.  Not only did you lose a friend and classmate, but you lost her in a way that leaves you questioning your own mortality.

On October 8, 2014, my 13 year old son Peyton came home from school, went in his bedroom, and hung himself.  Five days later, he passed away as a result of his injuries. I have been in your shoes, and although I can't say I know exactly what you are going through, but I can empathize with your current situation.

Hannah's suicide left many of you in a fog, a state of bewilderment and confusion.  If she had died in a car crash or of cancer, you would still mourn her loss, but at least have an answer as to the "Why?" which is gnawing at you right now.  Why would a beautiful young lady who seemed to have it all choose to take her life?  What hope do I have if some one like Hannah chooses to take her life? Unfortunately, you may never have the answer to these questions, but don't despair.

The first thing you need to understand is that suicide was Hannah's choice.  It was probably not a choice that came quickly or easily, nor was it a rational choice.  The choice to take one's own life is generally brought about by a pain that few can imagine.  A pain that is not a physical pain, but an emotional pain. A pain that convinces a person that they are a worthless burden to those around them. A pain that convinced Hannah that what she was doing would be appreciated by those she left behind.  A pain that slowly breaks a person down to the point that they see death as the only escape. A pain that robs a person of their own self worth.  A pain that leaves some one as a shell of the person they once were.  Worst of all, it is a pain that a person is adept at hiding from others.

When you first heard about Hannah's death, you were shocked.  You thought that some one was playing the sickest, most twisted joke you have ever heard.   While some of you are obviously distraught, others are angry at her for leaving you.  You may be asking "How could she do something so stupid?" or "How could her parents have let this happen?"  Maybe you blame yourself thinking "If only I had paid more attention to her, " or "I should have known."  Maybe you are anxious and thinking, “If she could get upset enough to kill herself, maybe the same thing will happen to me (or one of my friends).” Those closest to her might may find it almost impossible to return to a normal routine, and may even resent those who appear to be having fun. They may feel empty, lost, totally disconnected. They may become obsessed with keeping the memory of their friend alive. No matter what you are feeling, I want you to know it is okay.  You are allowed to feel how you feel.  You are allowed to be angry, or burst out in tears, or blame some, or yell and scream if need be.  If you need to talk to some one, then find some one to talk to.  There are people there for you, and will continue to be there for you. Whatever you do, do not keep your thoughts and emotions bottled up.  There is no set time limit on your grief, and we each deal with grief differently.

I know some of you feel let down right now by the very people you felt you could turn to you.  You asked to honor Hannah in the yearbook.  That is an honorable request, but supposedly "The teacher told her, you know, no we can't do that because of the way Hannah passed."  According to her sister, Holleigh, "This administration tells us that they won't make this page because they think that if children see it, then it will urge them to do the same thing, and I completely disagree with that." While it seems as though they don't, the administration does have your best interests at heart.  They are responsible to each and every one of you, and want to protect you.  They are afraid of suicide clusters, or contagions.  While these clusters exist, so does the fact that talking about suicide does not make a child suicidal, but instead, allows the outlet for those who have already thought about it to talk about it and know they are not alone.  I have been a teacher and coach for 26 years, and have seen schools handle suicide with everything from ignoring it to victim shaming, so please respect their wishes and give them time.  Let them talk to the family and who ever else they need to.  In time, I am sure that after weighing all of their options,  a decision will be made that works best for all.

Finally, I want to let you know that things will get better.  I know right now it is hard to believe.  Just over a week ago, you were ten feet tall and bullet proof, the masters of your domain, and ready to take one the world  Now, faced with the true fragility of human life.   You are scared at having to realize that you are not immortal.  Given time, you will begin to feel better.  It will not be easy, and you may even feel guilty, even ashamed, for feeling better, but if Hannah is the person that people have described, it is what she would want.  You never have to let her out of your heart, but you do need to go on.

In the days, weeks, and months to come, I ask that you please take care of yourself.  Know that there are people out there that care and want to help.  Take life one day at a time.  Remember to eat, to exercise, to talk to others, and to take care of yourself.  Keep Hannah and her family in your heart. They will need your strength.  Take them a casserole, send them a card or a plant, or write them a letter telling them how much Hannah meant to you.  Don't forget Hannah, ever, but what ever you do, keep going.  God bless.


David James
The Peyton Heart Project

Monday, March 6, 2017

Sh*t Gets Real In The 'Burbs

I live in the suburbs, the final battleground of the American dream, where people get married and have kids and try to scratch out a happy life for themselves. -Harlan Coben

My wife and I live in the suburbs.  Yes, our house and neighborhood might conform to what people would call cookie cutter.  Yes, beige is a predominant color in our neighborhood.  Yes, our choice in restaurants and shopping is relatively limited to the same chains as every other cookie cutter suburb throughout the country.  Yes, we have an abundance of SUV's and minivans driving cautiously through our streets as they look for young children on their bikes and scooter  in prerequisite helmets. On the other hand, we also have some of the best schools in the state.  We have more square footage for our money.  We have well manicured lawns in the summer and pissing contests with Christmas lights in the winter.  We have high achieving kids we are proud of, even if they drive golf carts recklessly, occasionally rearrange the letters on the signs in the neighborhood, and experiment with profanity at the park.

Unfortunately, last week the sh*t got real last week in our little slice of the 'burbs.  For me, it was another Wednesday morning.  I woke up hating the idea of going to work, showered, dressed, poured my coffee, grabbed my lunch, and slouched out the door.  As I pulled up to the stop sign to the entrance to my neighborhood, I looked to my left to see a sheriff's deputy go flying by with no lights or sirens.  My first thought was, "Asshole!  Doesn't he know this is a residential neighborhood?  Kids are walking to the bus stops, and God knows they aren't paying attention!"  As I drove, the newon the radio talked about an officer involved shooting at a residence in Montgomery County. In my drowsiness, I didn't connect the shooting to the deputy's speeding car.

When I arrived at work, I received a text from my wife if I knew anything about the shooting in our neighborhood.  I didn't, but turned to the internet for answers.  I browsed the websites for the local network news stations and found what I was looking for.  Just a few blocks away, while we were all snuggled soundly in our beds, one of our local residents stabbed his wife to death.  Deputies arrived and found his 11 year old son at the front door covered in his mother's blood.  The father was found in the bedroom and was shot to death after lunging at deputies after refusing their orders to drop the knife.

In that instant, our idyllic lives were shattered.  We had gone from silently cursing our neighbors for not brining in their trashcans to worrying about what was going on behind their closed doors.    The street that had at one time been filled with mothers pushing infants in strollers and children taking advantage of incline to gain speed on skateboards was now clogged by police cars, news vans and curious onlookers.  Reporters interviewed neighbors, family, and friends who all told of a dedicated father, loving mother, and shock and surprise that some one in our neighborhood was capable of such a horrific crime.  This was the type of crime we heard about on the evening news and then made sure our doors were locked.  Crimes like this were one of the reasons we chose a longer commute and dinner at Chili's.

The response of the community was amazing.  GoFundMe pages were started, meals were cooked, collections taken, and some one even contacted the Buffalo Bills (the young boy played for the Bills in the local Pop Warner league).  Flowers, balloons, candles, and stuffed animals were left in the yard as a make-shift memorial.  On the neighborhood Facebook page, people rallied to help and offer their services, and to not make mention of the incident for fear that either the 11 year old or his brother might stumble upon them.  Normally when I publish my blog, I post the link to that particular page, but this time, I will not.  However, that won't keep my from asking just what the hell happened that night behind those closed doors?

As stated earlier, this is not something that is supposed to happen in upper middle class neighborhoods.  This is something that is supposed to happen to crystal meth tweakers in trailer parks on the seedy part of town.  Now it is a reality for many who would prefer it not be, and it must be addressed and talked about, the 800 pound gorilla so to speak.  Why would a seemingly happy man kill his wife and then lunge with a knife toward heavily armed deputies (in Texas no less)?
This same man had earlier written an eight page letter to his sons detailing what was to be done with the house, the cars, and the money.  It was as though he knew that night would be his last.
Were his acts rational?  No, they were the acts of a person losing a battle within their own mind.  A rational person doesn't kill his wife.  Had the pain been bad enough that he wanted to end it for her as well as himself?  Perhaps.Does a rational person lunge toward gun bearing police while holding a knife? After all, if you lunge with a knife at an officer in Texas, there is a good chance you are going to come out on the losing end.   Did he want to spare his wife from what was going to happen? Perhaps.  Then why spare his son?  Why did this happen at all?

Now we are left to question the actions of a man no longer able to defend or define them.  We are left trying to explain to our children what had happened, and why the man who had waved from his driveway, as well as his wife, was never coming back. Why the comfort and security that we had abandoned trendy restaurants and chic boutiques for was no longer there.  Why we now want to know where they are going, what they will be doing, and most import, who will be there. We will not wave at a neighbor again without wondering what goes on when the door is shut or we are all nestled snug in our beds.  We won't watch another soccer mom in a minivan go by without wondering if she is hiding a dark secret.  But then again, that is what happens when sh*t gets real in the 'burbs.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Austin's Magical Secret Garden

There is a secret garden where miracles and magic abound, and its available to anyone who makes the choice to visit there. - Dr. Wayne W. Dwyer, "I Can See Clearly Now"

Tucked off of Barbara Jordan Boulevard in Austin is the Ronald McDonald House.  For most people the image of Ronald McDonald musters images of the clown who serves as the spokesperson for the McDonald's restaurant chain. Hundreds of people drive past the House every day, rarely give any thought to the people, that are at that moment, calling it home.  The families of children, from birth through 21 years of age (or 18, depending on the House), who are being treated at nearby hospitals and medical facilities, are eligible. Twenty eight months ago, my wife, daughter, and I called the House home for three of the longest days of our lives, while across the parking lot, Peyton fought a losing battle for his life in the PICU at Dell Children's Medical Center.

The House itself looks like a small mid-priced hotel.  The rooms each have a sitting area, a bathroom, and a bedroom.  There is a common area with dining tables and a kitchen.  The kitchen is available for all to use, but at least two times a day, a stream of volunteers come in and prepare simple meals for the residents.  A play room contains a variety of toys to entertain, or distract, brothers and sisters. Outside, there is a play set to help kids burn off energy and stress, benches to sit and relax, a grill, even a putting green.  There are statues donated in memory of loved ones sitting among the landscaping. Among the various plants, what would appear to be nothing more than ordinary bull rock used for landscaping across the state.  Upon closer inspection, each of the rocks has the name of a child, but not just any child.  The rocks memorialize a child that passed away while their family was staying at the House.  Each rock is made by a local stone mason who donates his time and materials.

Nestled among those rocks is one that reads "Peyton J".  This is Peyton's rock, and because he was cremated, it is the closest thing I have to a gravestone.   I first laid eyes on it two years ago when we traveled to the State Swimming and Diving Championships held every year in Austin.  We thought it would be a nice to have the swimmers pay a visit and donate some toiletries I had collected.  While they were taking a tour of the house, I walked outside and found Peyton's rock.  I knew it was there, but I didn't know what to expect.  It sat among the Madison's, John's, Sarah's, Bobby's, and Baby Boy Smith's. I slowly approached and knelt down while my heart did a Neil Peart drum solo in my chest. When my fingers touched the rock, my eyes filled with tears and I sobbed uncontrollably as snot bubbles ran from my nose.  I talked to the rock telling it how sorry I was that I had failed him, how disappointed he must have been in me as a father, that I would still trade places with him to let him live his once promising life, and begging his forgiveness for my short comings as a father.

After ten or so minutes, I pried myself away from the rock, dried my eyes on my sleeve, put on my sun glasses to hide my cryin' eyes, and headed back in to the House to collect the swimmers and head to the hotel to prepare for a weekend of action at the pool.

Over the years, this is a ritual I have repeated every time I visit the Austin.  I try to make a delivery of toiletries to the House to justify my presence.  I search the garden, find the rock, kneel down and lose my shit for the duration of the visit.  it is a cathartic and cleansing ritual for me.  Because Peyton was cremated, it is the closest thing (in addition to a tree planted in his honor at his former school in Round Rock), that I have.  I can kneel down, talk to him, hold the stone, and enjoy the quiet and beauty of the garden around me, even if just for a few minutes.

Compared to the rest of the state of Texas, Austin is a freak show.  Not in a bad way, but it is different.  Where as most of the state is known as a bastion for conservative values, Austin tips heavily liberal.  While Dallas strives to be sophisticated, Austin prides itself on keeping weird. Houston is known for fine dining, but Austin for its food trucks.  San Antonio prides itself on its Hispanic heritage, but Austin is the cultural diversity capital.  From food, to architecture, to music, to the people, Austin stands out, and is a great place to live and visit.  However, for me, the number one attraction is the unassuming building on Barbara Jordan Boulevard that is home to Austin's Magical Secret Garden.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Red Headed Nerds Are Everywhere

WARNING:Before anyone gets butt hurt about the title, please continue to read this post as it relates to the title.  

nerd : An individual persecuted for his superior skills or intellect, most often by people who fear and envy him. -Urban Dictionary

Eventually, the nerds and the geeks will have their day. -Judd Apatow

This past Thursday, we hosted a track meet at College Park High School.  It was a practice meet, no places kept, no medals awarded, and the only thing that truly mattered to the coaches were the times and distances as we prepare for our first meet this coming week.  As the meet came to its last event, we shuffled runners on and off the track so that we could finish up, get inside, and get warm.  As I looked up to check the lanes, I couldn't help but notice one young man.  He was tall and gangly with a distance runner's physique, but what really stood out what his red hair and freckles.  Not only did he have the same haircut as Peyton used to sport, but he looked enough like Peyton that I had to take off my glasses, rub my eyes, and do a double take.  Needless to say, it wasn't Peyton.  Peyton has been dead for almost two and a half years, but none the less, the resemblance was shocking.  

Flash forward to yesterday.  Lisa and I took Emmy down to Houston for one of her former classmate Ally's birthday party.  For the uninitiated, the birthday party of a five year old is a blend of the various action scenes from the Mad Max/Road Warrior films. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Thunderdome is relatively tranquil compared to sugared up five  year olds.  Now add in that it was not just a party for Ally, but also her seven year old brother Greg, and you have the makings of pure pandemonium.  Mixed in among the mob was another little red headed boy. Not only was he similar in appearance, but also actions to Peyton.  At one point, he had taken off his shoes to test the strength of some dead reeds in order to poke at the koi in a fish pond with a stick.  Again, I was reminded of my son, but at a younger age.  

These two cases of deja vu truly got me to thinking about all the other red headed kids I have seen since Peyton's death.  They never seem to be in possession of a comb, thus leading to an unruly mop upon their head, like Peyton.  The cavalier attitude of adventure over their own safety was too, like Peyton.  The fact that they are all arms and legs, lacking in grace and athleticism reminds me of, you guessed it, Peyton.  Never mind the fact that they all seemed to be lovable nerds, like Peyton.  

I have no doubt that there are graceful red heads that can dunk a basketball after taking off from the free throw line, throw a slider that never fails to catch the corner of the plate, repeatedly make acrobatic catches in the end zone, or who have never seen an episode of Dr. Who or The Walking Dead.  Just like I have no doubt there are red heads who possess the grace of a Baryshnikov, the hair of a Clooney or Pitt, even the complexion of Kutcher or Reynolds.  However, it never fails that every red head I see never fails to remind me of Peyton.  

Maybe its because I miss him so damn much.  Maybe because he should be walking the halls of a high school right now.  Maybe because whenever I see the trailer for the latest Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, or Harry Potter spinoff, I want to call him so he can watch it, call me back and discuss it.  Maybe it is because I will be heading to Austin this week for the state swim meet for the fifth straight year, and I will pass all of the landmarks that he used to point of every time we passed them.  But whatever the reason is, it seems that all the red heads I see are all goofy, gangly, nerdy kids like Peyton.  

Perhaps it is meant to be this way.  Maybe all of these kids are reminders of just how truly special Peyton truly was.  How not every one is meant to be a star athlete, or smooth with the ladies, or even able to dazzle socially.  Maybe we need to be reminded of that despite being far from perfect, there are people out there that will capture our hearts with their awkwardness and quirks.  

Next time I am out and about, walking through the halls at school, or even braving the savagery of a children's birthday party, and I see a red head step and throw with the same arm and leg, choose not to play tag because he wants to finish a chapter, or even get soaked falling into a fish pond, I will think to myself that red headed nerds are everywhere, and for that I thank God.  

Thursday, January 19, 2017

I Just Don't F*king Care

Rev. Lovejoy: [Describes being bothered incessantly by Ned Flanders] Eventually, I just gave up and stopped caring. Luckily, by then it was the '80s, and no one noticed.
Marge Simpson: You can't let a few bad experiences put you off helping people!
Rev. Lovejoy: Oh, sure I can.

I never asked for Peyton to die.  I never imagined living in a world that he was not part of, but it happened.  October 8, 2014, Peyton came home from school, went into his room, and hung himself. My world took a total and complete nosedive that day.  Things that once seemed important went by the wayside.  That is not to say that I am apathetic towards everything, but my priorities have changed, dramatically.

I have been a teacher and coach for 26 years.  Of those 26, 20 have been spent teaching English.  I have taught every grade level from 6th through 12th.  Teaching is my second career, and when I began, I pursued it passionately.  I went to work shops to exchange ideas and learn from others.  I volunteered to be on committees to develop curriculum that would be interesting and beneficial to the students.  In the pre-internet days, I would spend hours creating activities and lessons for my students, and post-internet days would find me using the vast resources available to me to make the lessons even better, more relevant, and beneficial.  I prided myself on strong evaluations, and loved to be praised by my peers for my effort.  I was proud to be a teacher, I loved to see the light go on when students "got it",  or when they read a book I recommended, or when they thank you for helping them.  I loved it.  However, since Peyton's death, I just don't f*cking care.

Don't get me wrong.  It is not that I come in to work every day, sit at my desk and throw worksheets at the students.  I still teach, but the passion is gone.  The joy I used to experience when I taught has vanished.  Now it has become a job.  What was once an adventure now has become as routine as stocking shelves at Piggly Wiggly.  It feels as though I should be punching a time clock.

It wasn't just Peyton's suicide that led me down this path, but his death, along with other circumstances, formed the perfect storm that brought me to where I am now.  The first step was my perceived apathy by school districts toward mental health issues and the psychological well being of their students.  The fact that districts spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make sure that students pass standardized tests, but nary a cent to make sure they live long enough to take it frustrated me to no end.  I would see students miss entire days of class to prepare for the upcoming retest, but never checked to make sure that they were in the right frame of mind when they took it. Other districts would pretend that suicide and mental health issues never existed, even after the death of a student, some would try and go on as though it never happened.  I even heard of a school here in Texas that forbid students from wearing memorial shirts to honor a classmate killed in a car crash due to a policy that wanted to keep students from honoring those that committed suicide.

If educational institutions were willing to turn a blind eye to mental health issues and suicide, something that I feel passionately about, then why should I care about teaching a test that they rely on?  Students spend the first twelve years of their lives being either prepared to take the test (my son was given practice tests in kindergarten), or being tested.  Over that time, how many times are they taught that it is ok not to feel ok?

Some times, it is the students themselves that spawn my apathy.   When ever a student tells me that anything from MLA format, to Ernest Hemingway, to a five paragraph essay, to SAT test prep, or capitalizing proper nouns is either gay, stupid, retarded, or sucks, I just don't f*cking care.  When I student begs you to come in and make up a quiz they have put off for a month, but don't want to come in before school because they don't want to get up early, I just don't f*cking care. When ever a student tells me that they couldn't complete something because they had (fill in the extracurricular activity here) last night, I don't f*cking care. Not that I am entirely unsympathetic, after all, I am a coach, but it is not like the deadline was just announced.  Most of the time, any due dates I have are announced far in advance, recorded on the board in the room, recorded online, and constantly updated.  It is not my fault that you let it slide, so when you tell me that rehearsals for the musical take all your time, I just don't f*cking care.

Of course I don't hate my students, I am deeply concerned about each and every one of them, but what it comes down to is priorities.  I have 111 students on my academic roles.  If you go by national averages, then 22 of them are struggling with some type of mental health issue, 12 have a mood disorder, 11 have a behavior conduct disorder, and 10 have an anxiety disorder.  Of those with a mental health issue, 50% have a high chance of dropping out, ending up incarcerated, or taking their own life. 22 of them have thought of taking their lives, and 17 have made a plan.   Perhaps that provides some insight as to why I don't f*cking care about play practice or a standardized test score.

There are other things that I just don't f*cking care about, and the list in lengthy.  Some I didn't care about before Peyton's death such as Major League Soccer, The Bachelor/Bachelorette, political correctness, rap or country music, awards shows (except the Oscars), or standardized testing, just to name a few.  Now the list goes on to include things like my appearance, my diet (I have gained at least 30 pounds), political squabbling (both parties suck), and the Oscars.

On the plus side, maybe it balances out because now I actually care about suicide prevention, mental health issues, and that my students success is far more than a well written research paper or a score on a test.  I actually want them to make a mark in this world beyond the classroom, track or pool.  I want my students to come back to visit me some day not to tell me that they appreciate  that I taught them how to write an essay on a test, but that I taught them that it is okay to not be okay, that they were headed down a dark path until they realized they weren't the only person in class dealing with depression or anxiety, or even that they had made a decision to take drastic steps to end their pain, but knowing that there were people in the world that cared about them for who they are and not what they could do made a difference.  That is what I do f*cking care about.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

To Those We Lost In 2016 And Those That Are Left Behind In 2017

“I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.” -Carrie Fisher

2016 was a bitch if you were a celebrity. It seems as though a large part of my childhood passed away. From David Bowie, to Prince, to George Michael, to Carrie Fisher, to William Christopher (the beloved Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H), faces I grew up with were being shown on the In Memoriam segment at the end of the nightly news. Friends and acquaintances talked about their careers, accomplishments, awards, and achievements.  They praised songs, albums, movies, television shows, books, and humanitarian efforts.  Others spoke of their ups and downs, highs and lows, battles with drugs and alcohol, and struggles with mental health issues.  TMZ and other gossip outlets speculated on the causes of death, talked about the wives, partners, parents, and children left behind, and wondered how their legacies would be remembered and preserved.

Unfortunately, for every Bowie, Fisher, Michael, Christopher, or Prince, there was a Michael Thornton, a Brandy Vela, a Grace Loncar, a Natalie Natividad, or a David Molak. They were all students in the state of Texas that took their lives in 2016.  Some of them received media coverage, but were quickly forgotten as other world events, or celebrity deaths and foibles, pushed them to the back pages, and eventually out of the news.  Maybe there was a fund raiser,  or maybe a foundation or an organization was formed to keep the child's memory alive, but it is a safe bet that those left behind by these suicides, and the approximately 40,000 others in the United States during 2016, were not rocking in the New Year last night.

For the families mentioned above, as well as the others left behind, this was their first holiday season without their loved ones.  Many may have just gone through the motions of some semblance of a holiday, especially if there were kids involved.  Some may have cut back, choosing moderate decorations instead of going full blown Griswold.  Others may have chosen to take a pass on the whole holiday, leaving the decorations in the attic and presents unbought.  Maybe they attended a party or two and felt as though every person there was staring at them and judging them.  Perhaps they made small talk with old friends while what they really wanted to do was talk about their loved one, but don't want to kill the mood.  Maybe they will drive past a packed mall and scream from their car, "How can you go about your lives when my child has killed themselves?" In the week between Christmas and New Year's when so many have trouble remembering what day of the week it is, they may lose track of what year it is.  As New Year's Eve nears, perhaps they will make plans, only to cancel them.  The thought of being around people having fun becomes less appealing the closer the day gets.  If they do go out, maybe it will be a quiet evening.  For most the best idea seems to be sitting at home doing nothing.

My first New Year's Eve after Peyton's death was spent at a small party held by a friend of a friend.  I had no desire to go.  I had made it through Thanksgiving and Christmas, did the obligatory family parties, but I needed a break.  I just wanted to stay home and do nothing, unwind, and watch pointless bowl games.  Instead I found myself surrounded by people I vaguely or barely knew, ate mediocre pot luck food, and watched grown men come damn close to blowing off fingers while playing with fireworks. As a result, I did the only thing I could think of to feel comfortable, I drank large amounts of vodka to try and ease the pain I was feeling, and it worked until the vodka decided to relocate from my stomach after a couple of hours.  I have no doubt that last night, some of those left behind followed in my footsteps and chose to numb themselves.

For those new Survivors of Suicide, 2017 will be very similar to 2016 after they lost their loved ones, and that is a total fog.  They will have the painful and inevitable "firsts".  They will deal with depression, anxiety, PTSD, self-doubt, anger, guilt, sadness beyond measure, triggers, and so much more.  Some days they won't be able to get out of bed.  Others will be fine until they are hit by an overwhelming emotional wave and end up crying in their office until they are told to go home.  They will feel abandoned and left behind.  They will want to throat punch a well intentioned friend because they say something they think is helpful, but isn't.  And by the way, all of the aforementioned is okay. They have the right to feel how they want.  There is no time table to "get over it" or to "move on".

So as we bid farewell to 2016, we mourn those we have lost.  But as we move forward into 2017, lets remember to take care of those that are left behind.