Sunday, August 28, 2016

Dear Stranger: Thank You For The Giant Heart

Like many parents after a long family holiday, I usually welcome the moment when my kids head back to school.- Jose Andres

The first day of school is a bitch.  As a teacher, I miss the old days when we would start school on a Wednesday.  You could spend the first three days getting all the beginning of the year paper work, get to know you, and other activities out of the way and then you came back Monday and started teaching.

As a parent who lost his son to suicide, it is a bitter reminder that my son is dead and will never have another first day of anything.  Yes, I have a step-son and daughter that still have a first day, but it does not replace seeing your first born on the first day.  I remember taking off half a day to take Peyton to kindergarten on the first day, and receiving a picture from his mother every year at their annual "First day of School Breakfast".  For the last two years, I have had to look on #Timehop to see his last first day.

Needless to say, I spent Monday in a sh*t mood.  I avoided Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the most part because I didn't want to see all of the pictures that people had posted of their smiling children heading back to school. I was exhausted by night time, went to bed early, and woke up Tuesday morning dreading another day of back to school activities, shortened classes, paperwork, schedule changes, figuring out where to out the students I had no desks for, and the other joys of the first week.  I went through my morning routine of a shower, getting dressed, putting on the accursed post surgery walking boot, grabbing my lunch from the fridge, pouring my vat of coffee and heading to work.  On the way to work, I had to deal with those that are blinker usage challenged, can't comprehend speed limits, and feel that traffic laws are for suckers.  I limped into the building and headed for the work room to check my box (The architects who designed the building are still laughing how they managed to put the teacher boxes in an area where two people walking in the opposite direction cannot pass without turning sideways or gaining intimate knowledge of each other) because you never know what last minute notices, bonus checks, or bite sized Hershey bars might be waiting for you.

On this day, I could see nothing peeking out, so I reached in.  I felt something soft and pulled out an enormous heart made from yarn.  The heart itself was a larger version of the ones that people make for the #PeytonHeartProject.  There was no tag or name on it, I even squatted among the throng of teachers trying to squeeze into the crowd to get a better look, but there was nothing.  I took the elevator up to my room, took the obligatory selfie with it, posted it to social media, found the perfect place to hang it above my desk, sat down and lost my sh*t.

People need to understand what it is like to lose a loved one to suicide.  Once the initial shock of Peyton's death was over, the world went on spinning for most people.  Yes, there were those that mourned along with me, but eventually they went back to their families and lives while I was left to try and make sense of my life.  I would drive down the freeway, walk through the mall, or sit in a restaurant and see people laughing, having fun and carrying on without a worry in the world, and I would want to shout, "What the f**k is wrong with you!  My son is killed himself and you don't care!"  I was feeling that way on Tuesday as adults and kids alike talked about the first day of school. I wanted nothing to do with happy people, but just wanted the day to end so I could go home.  Then I got your heart.

I don't think you realize how much a small gesture to a parent who has lost a child, or other loved one, to suicide means.  We feel forgotten or avoided.  Our loved one didn't fight the good fight against cancer or some other insidious disease.  They weren't taken from us by a thoughtless drunk or careless texter.  They weren't cut down on the battlefield or in the line of duty.  Our loved fought bravely against the demons in their heads, the bullies in the hall, the expectations they couldn't live up to, or the pressures of a life they had never achieved, and they took their own life in order to end the agonizing pain that they were living with.  Unfortunately, because of a lack of understanding and education, people brand them as cowards or crazy, and those of us that are left behind feel avoided, shunned, and forgotten.  Our friends no longer call, we are kept at a distance, or ignored.  Maybe it is because people don't know what to say, maybe it is because the subject of suicide is so taboo, or maybe, because of the lack of understanding, people are afraid that what ever caused our love one to take their lives might be contagious, and now we are infected, and they could be next.

On that day, you let me know that Peyton had not been forgotten, and you let me know that some one cared.  That heart will always occupy a special place in my classroom and in my heart.  You may be a a teacher, a student, a parent, or none of the afore mentioned.  I don't even know if you realized the effect that heart would have on me that day.  But I want you to know that some thing so simple meant so much to me on a day I needed it the most, and for that Dear Stranger, thank you.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The "Year of Saving Lives" Because "All Means All"

The following opinions being expressed are mine, and mine alone.  While there are those that may agree with me, they are not included here.  I have been, and will continue to be,  outspoken about school districts, including my own, and their lack of action regarding suicide.  For my beliefs, I make no apologies.  

School starts tomorrow for many across the state of Texas.  That means for the thousands of teachers across the state, it meant that last week was filled with a never ending slew of meetings of everything from STAAR remediation to T-TESS, the new teacher evaluation system (teacher organizations have already filed lawsuits over the unfairness it).  For new teachers, this week of meetings is an indoctrination to the world of educational bureaucracy, or the harsh realization that it really is about test scores.  For others, it is a soul crushing reminder that their class room will sit untouched while they are told what they are required to teach, how they will be required to teach, and how they will be remediated and punished should their students not master the test.  Some will spend their time surfing Indeed. com looking for less stressful jobs such as driving trucks full of "stuff" through Syria, or being Ryan Lochte's publicist.  Others will sit and weep silently when they realize their raise will be eaten up by the jump in their insurance premiums causing them to take home less than they did last year. However, there are some that look forward to these meetings where they anxiously soak up all of the new state mandates, requirements, data, tools of measurement, and increase in paper work and loss of planning time.  In reality, none of those exist, in its entirety, but parts of them live in all teachers.

Some districts will even go so far as to have a convocation where all are required to gather in a single spot to be told how lucky they are to to work in that district, and how lucky the district is to have them.  Some times the principals will dance for the amusement of others, counselors will put on skits, talented students from throughout the district will be paraded on stage for the amusement of the masses, or a guest speaker with no interest in the district, beyond a large check for their services, will deliver a well scripted speech to the proletarian masses.  What ever the case is, teachers will flock in, sit, applaud at the appropriate times, hang their heads in shame when chastised, and generally feeling like time has passed since the time they entered.

This year, two of the points made at my district's Festivus were that this is the "Year of Saving Lives," and that "All Means All." Now the Year of Saving Lives referred to school nurse Rachelle Thinnes who was able to help save a man’s life by using immediate bystander Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) and an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) to “shock” the victim’s heart when a guest to her school suffered a cardiac arrest.  All means all is a reference to the district's mandate that we educate all students when they enter our schools.  First of all, high five to nurse Thinnes for saving a life, and secondly, to any one that has ever taught, you know that there are kids that we fight tooth and nail to educate and love, even when the kid resists.

Now I know what was meant by the "Year of Saving Lives" and "All means all", but being me, and based on what I have dealt with in the past two years, I decided to look at it a different way.  I look as saving lives as a priority.  Not only do they want us to rush to the aid of those that suffer cardiac arrest in our midst, but schools educate students about the risks that might lead to something as serious as a heart attack.  Legislators and schools try to remove risk factors in order to keep students safe from heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and the like.  Students wanting to participate in athletics, dance, cheerleading, and marching band are required to have a comprehensive physical.  Abnormalities are scrutinized, and sometimes, the student must be evaluated by a specialist in order to be cleared to play.  All of these are good things, and I have no problem with any of it. Saving the life of any one is a good thing, whether it is through CPR or preventive measures. Every year, there is a tragic story or two on the news about an athlete that collapsed or died at practice or during a game, and when that happens, people scream and yell for better physicals, and screensing and preventative measures.

But what about the 20 percent of students (ages 13-18) that have a serious mental illness (50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14)?  Or how about the approximately 50% of students age 14 and older with a mental illness who drop out of high school? Or the 70% of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems who have a mental illness?  Or the 90% of those who
died by suicide who had an underlying mental illness?  Where is the public outcry when a chid goes home and shoots themselves or overdoses on medication?  Are these students part of "All means all" in the "Year of saving lives?"   What are schools going to do for them?

As a teacher, I got into teaching to effect the lives of students.  What I didn't get into teaching for was to administer tests.  Some districts offer PACE (Personal, Academic, and Career Exploration) in order to help assist them in future transitions to career, college, adulthood, and independence. PACE also links relevant concepts so that students understand the "big picture" in preparing for life after high school while still in high school.  This 1 semester course helps students address many of the issues faced in society today, and is even required for graduation.  Yet many districts shy away from courses such as these.  I would even ask to teach a course such as this.

As we head into the new school year, I ask all of those reading this to work toward making this the year of saving ALL LIVES.  Teachers, work with your kids, take an interest in what they are doing, ask questions of them, and should you notice something wrong or out of the ordinary, speak up and voice your concerns.  Sure you may be wrong, but err on the side of caution.  Parents, talk to your kids, and let them know that it is ok to not be ok.  Also, ask what the schools in your district are doing to address these issues.  You pay taxes, and you have a voice in how your schools should be run.  Address the school board, ask them what is being done.  These people work for you, and can be voted out if they don't have the best interests of the students at heart.  What if you don't have kids in the public schools?  Don't you still have to pay taxes?  Would you mind if a few of those dollars went to helping kids stay alive?

When those buses pull up in the morning to take our kids to school, we rely on them in the afternoon to bring them home.  Shouldn't we hope that what happens in the time between pick up and drop off assures that this will be a routine?  Remember, ALL MEANS ALL.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Peyton A. James Middle School? Why Not?

I attended five public schools in my life: Decius Beebe Elementary, Robert V. Yeuell School, Middle Road School, Wunsche Middle School, and Spring High School.  Three of the schools are named after local, notable citizens, a philanthropist, a war hero, and a prominent citizen.  The others named after their locations.  I have taught at schools named after historical figures, sugar barons, educators, locations, and trees.  Every district has a process, rules and traditions that they follow when naming schools.  Some times schools will even change the name of a school if the original name is suddenly found offensive.  The Austin Independent School District recently chose to rename an elementary school originally named after a Confederate general, and looked to the public for input. While I am sure that there were legitimate suggestions, the most popular was Donald Trump Elementary School.  Needless to say, the process is imperfect, and no matter what you choose, there will be those who will not be happy and will feel slighted.

Earlier this week, Peyton's mother sent me a link about Georgetown ISD asking the public for their input into the naming of a new middle school.  It was suggested by a friend of her's that the district name the new school after Peyton.  I looked at GISD Board Policy CW (LOCAL) outlines criteria for the naming of a new district facility. The policy states that a new facility shall be named for one of the following:
      1. A historical or geographical site or community
      2. A local, state, or national historical event or place
      3. A significant local, state or national figure
      4. A person who has made a significant contribution to education in the district
Furthermore, if the proposed name is in honor of an individual, the name must be accompanied by a written rationale and/or description of the named person’s accomplishments. Each name nominated must fulfill the following criteria:
      1. The nominee shall be widely respected, regardless of any partisan affiliation.
      2. The nominee shall be a person of character who embodies a wholesome image that would be               expected to stand the test of time.
      3. The nominee shall have a background of service to people of the district, Texas, or the United             States.

As I looked over the criteria, I began to wonder how Peyton would fit.  Was he significant locally?  I can't think of how he isn't.  Peyton' mother has done everything possible in Georgetown to keep Peyton's memory alive.  Through her organization, Kindness Matters, she has addressed hundreds of students and faculty about the importance of students treating each other with kindness and respect, to help friends in a time of need, and how to stand up to bullies.  The students and staff of Georgetown ISD are better because of him.  Peyton was not partisan.  He actually had no interest in politics, on fairness for all.  He was of character, honest and decent, fair and kind to all, and how can you get more wholesome than red hair and freckles.  Peyton's service to the people of the district is keeping people alive.  I can't think of a more noble case than saving lives.

Yes, there are those who would, and have, voiced their opposition.  They ask why would a school district choose to name a school after a student, especially one that completed suicide?  I ask them, why not?  Yes, there are hundreds of schools named after presidents, generals, politicians, historical figures, towns, geographical locations, prominent local citizens, school boards members, and administrators.  What you don't see much of are teachers and students, the back bone of any district. In my experience, I know of one school named for a student that died in the prime of their life, yet without students, then schools no longer exist.

I am not overly optimistic that Peyton's name would even garner any consideration.  In larger, expanding districts, cronyism runs rampant, and the names of schools are decided long before ground has even been broken for construction. However, it would be a bold move on the part of Georgetown ISD to give Peyton's name consideration.  Think of the message they could send to the community that students rate consideration, that they are the backbone of a school system.  When I originally posted this information last week on Facebook, Chelsea Fullwood, an Austin area attorney and suicide survivor, said it best in her letter to Georgetown ISD in support of Peyton, "We’ve got schools named for politicians, religious leaders, educators, civil rights advocates and – let’s be frank – donors.   Peyton represents the fragility of adolescence.  His name should serve to remind parents, teachers and students that kindness, love and patience are more important than grades, scores or celebrity.  His name should serve to remind students that none of us is alone. I don’t believe Peyton’s parents would shy from admitting that their courage, compassion and resilience in the wake of such tragedy comes from a desire for their son’s death to mean something.  And for every person that wakes up and thinks, “I’m not alone and I’m not going to let anyone else feel that way today,” because they knew Peyton James – it does."