Friday, October 6, 2017
Merriam-Webster: badass-chiefly US, informal + sometimes offensive :of formidable strength or skill
On sunday, October, 1, 2017, the Houston Texans soundly defeated the Tennessee Titans by an overwhelming score of 57-14. The highlight of the game was the performance of Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson threw four touchdown passes and ran for another in the victory. Texans fans took to social media to proclaim Watson the savior of Texans football, a man among men, and a total badass. While Watson is a truly gifted player, an incredible young man (he recently donated his first game check to Texans cafeteria workers who were affected by Hurricane Harvey), and perhaps the future of the Texans franchise, he is not a badass. Yesterday, I had to opportunity to meet John and Jane*, two authentic, real life badasses.
I was introduced to John and Jane at a suicide awareness event I attended. On the surface, John and Jane look like your average suburban high school kids, but their stories are what earned my admiration. John stood in front of a crowd of strangers and told his story about attempting to take his life. He talked about his battle with mental health issues and how he finally reached his breaking point. He spoke openly and honestly of his life since that day, how he is coping and going on with his life. John is a badass. Talking about your struggles with mental health takes guts. In our society, people generally don't want to hear about mental health. Sadly, they equate mental health with insanity due to the lack of understanding. Then John talked about attempting to take his life. He broke down several times, but managed to get his story out. Not only is John still walking the Earth, but he is recovering. No doubt his life is a daily struggle, but John perseveres. He gets up every morning and faces the same demons that have haunted him, but now he is fighting back. John is a total and complete badass.
The other badass I met was Jane. Jane talked about her childhood, how she grew up with a negligent mother, how she lived in poverty, how she was harassed on a daily basis at school because of her clothes and her weight. Jane told us how she would cut herself to trade one pain she could dictate and control for another she couldn't. She told about meeting a Bob* her freshman year of high school. How they bonded, and how that bond grew. How she finally felt accepted and cared for by Bob even though Bob was fighting his own demons. Then Jane told about how Bob took his life. For a teenage girl, Jane was wise beyond her years. She has lived with more crap in her young life than most people deal with in their entire lives. But because Jane is a badass, rather than give into her demons, she fought back against them and now uses her story to inspire others. Jane too, is a total and complete badass.
Our world is full of badasses, but these badasses don't throw touchdown passes, hit home runs, dunk a basketball, or shred a sick solo on a guitar. The badasses I'm talking about fight daily to stay live. The battle to silence the voices in their head that try to convince them that the world would be a better place without them, voices that tell them how happy their family would be to be relieved of the burden they have become. They live with an emotional pain as crippling as any disease known to man, but they go on despite it. They live with an illness that is shunned by society, but takes more young lives than cancer and heart disease. They are told they should just be happy, think positive thoughts, or to stop feeling sorry for themselves. They have to resist the urge to cut themselves, turn to drugs, alcohol, or other addictions to ease their pain. They are young and old. They are male and female. They are black, white, hispanic, Native American, Asian, and every other race and nationality. They are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, classmates, and coworkers. They may sit next to you in class, in the office, in a restaurant, or on the bus. They may wear a badge, a uniform, a suit, or hand me downs. They may teach your kids, or even be your kids.
The next time you decide to throw around the term badass, stop and think. In the United States, approximately 44,000 badasses lose their battle every year, but so many more, like John and Jane, continue to fight on. For all those out there fighting the battle to stay alive every day, you are my heroes, my badasses.
Sunday, September 17, 2017
I actually started this post several weeks ago, and meant to have it posted on August 28th, the official first day of school in Texas, but due to Hurricane Harvey, and his effect on the Texas Gulf Coast, I decided to focus on other issues. As of September 18, there are several districts along the Gulf Coast that are just now opening their doors to students due to damage from Harvey. Please keep those affected in your thoughts and prayers. Thank you.
Across the country, schools are welcoming millions of students through their doors. From wide eyed kindergartners to ready for it to all be over seniors, over 50 million students will be enrolled this year. Unfortunately, at some of these schools, familiar faces will be missing. It is one of the sad facts of life that people, even young people, pass away. Whether it is illness, accident, or self-inflicted, we lose students. However, thanks to the efforts of one courageous mother, students in Texas will return to something different.
Aside from teachers, there will be something new greeting students in Texas, and that is SB 179, better known as David's Law. The law itself is named after 16 year old David Molak who took his life in January of 2016. David had been a student at the affluent Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio. Alamo Heights is a well regarded and award winning school district, and it is considered by many to be the most affluent in Bexar County. Like any high school, the student body at Alamo Heights has its cliques and pecking order, and at one point, David became the target of an onslaught of harassment through text messages and social media. Eventually the pain became too much for David to bear, and David took his life. In the aftermath David's death, Cliff made a post to Facebook that has since gone viral talking about the unrelenting harassment and cyberbullying David received. He spoke openly and candidly about the effects the bullying had on David, the heart wrenching pain, and ultimately the consequences of the long term harassment.
After David's death, news came out that David had been bullied and harassed since at least February of the previous year, had switched schools as a result, and had even attempted to take his life before. In addition, the San Antonio and Alamo Heights police departments, and the Bexar County District Attorney's Office began an investigation into the alleged harassment. Sadly, after a several month investigation that ended in May of 2016, Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood announced that no charges would be filed because the current laws in regards to cyber bullying were too vague. “If we’re not talking about physical bullying, we’re really talking about harassment, and that is a vague statute,” LaHood said. “Under the harassment statute, we have to have the evidence to back up the different elements of the allegation, and it’s just not there.”
Although it seemed that this was a closed case, changes loomed on the horizon that would bring positive change. The Alamo Heights Independent School District, under the leadership of Superintendent Kevin Brown, created a Task Force comprised of teachers, district administrators, mental health professionals, technology experts, and medical professionals to assess the effectiveness of current campus practices related to:
- character education
- social and emotional wellness, and
- digital citizenship
They met with parents, students, teachers, counselors, administrators, law enforcement, medical and mental health professionals, legal experts, and bus drivers in order to find out what can be done to improve the existing policies and practices to create a safer and more productive atmosphere, as we'll as address social and emotional wellness. They set up programs for staff and student education, set up support networks, hired additional personnel to reduce the ratio and allow more personal interactions, addressed the issues of over scheduling and overburdening students in order to decrease stress. They developed principles of character education to ensure that [their] character development efforts are intentional, on-going, and consistently implemented across campuses, and in forms that students relate to. Implemented a 24-hour Code of Leadership to establish higher expectations for our students and anticipate that all students will participate in extra-curricular activities during their secondary school career, and required all clubs and sports to adhere to it as well. Most importantly, they updated district policies to state that bullying occurs when a student or group of students engages 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, “or any other manner that disrupts the educational environment.”
The findings and suggestions of the Alamo Heights Task Force Report were presented to the school board and became one of the first board policies on Texas to address cyberbullying directly, and included stricter consequences, up to and including expulsion, for the perpetrators.
in November of 2016 Texas State Senator Jose Menedez and State Representative Ina Minjarez, both from San Antonio, filed Senate Bill 179, also known as David's Law, with the Texas Legislature. Following many of the guidelines and principles set forth by the Alamo Heights Task Force, the earliest form of the bill would classify cyberbullying as a felony, allow courts to issue subpoenas to unmask people who anonymously harass minors online and require public schools to report and intervene in any suspected cyberbullying cases. It also allowed victims to sue cyberbullies’ parents if the parents could have intervened but didn't.
Just like any law, there was push back from various groups who felt that the law was too severe, or that it focused more on punishment than rehabilitation. According to sources close to the bill, two of the biggest opponents were the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA), and the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB). Allegedly, both TASA and TASB opposed that requirement that schools must investigate incidents of cyberbullying that occur off campus and not during school hours. The key to this requirement is that the cyberbullying must interfere with a student's education opportunities, or substantially disrupts the orderly operation of a classroom, school, school sponsored, or school related activities. After all, how can a student concentrate on standardized testing if they are worried about getting their ass kicked after the test? Another sticking point for both organizations was the requirement for every district to establish a way for students to anonymously report incidents of bullying, even though they many already have a way for students to report other crimes. In addition, the organizations balked at the requirement that administrators would have to notify the parents of the student who had been bullied immediately (now changed to within three days), as well as notifying the parents of the bully immediately (but still remains a "reasonable amount of time"). As to why either organization would oppose anything that benefits a student who is being harassed is a true head scratcher, but so it goes.
Sadly, the other part that ended up being dropped was the ability of the bullied person to recoup financial damages from the bully, or bully's parents. It seems that this day and age, the one way you can get the attention of a parent is to take money out of their pocket.
Several of the key components of the law authorizes schools to place the offending bully in an alternative setting, or expel them, if they encourage a student to commit, or attempt to commit, suicide; incite violence against a student through group bullying; or release or threaten to release intimate visual material of a minor or of a stunt who is 18 years of age or older without the student's consent. Perhaps if this has been in effect, Eloise would have been able to finish the school year with her friends, while Tootie sat in alternative school or at home. It allows for civil relief from cyberbullying by relaxing some of the requirements normally applicable for injunctive relief. It also increases the charges from a Class B Misdemeanor to a Class A Misdemeanor, which could mean up to a year in jail, if the offense is committed against a child under the age of 18 with the intent that the child commit suicide or engage in conduct causing serious bodily injury to the child, or the person violates a temporary restraining order or injunction issued under the new civil provisions of David's Law.
It is sad that our society has to create laws to directly address situation like David's, or to hold school districts accountable for protecting the students they are entrusted with, or to deal with parents who oblivious or in denial of their child's actions, but we do. As all students get back to the business of learning, there are many that will benefit from the implementation of David's Law. They should be able to come to school able to apply themselves to their studies without the worry of harassment. If that threat does rear it's ugly head, they now have new resources for dealing with it. I urge all parents out there to familiarize yourself with the elements of David's Law and help educate your kids on how to best utilize the aspects of the law designed to help them, or if they are the bully, inform them of what awaits them in they mistakenly think this law does not apply to them. Administrators, as we send you our sons and daughters, we expect you to keep them safe from harm, to deal with any issues that they may face, and to let us know when, as a parent, we need to get involved. And finally, to the students, know that there are people out there who want to help you and are dedicated to doing so. School should be a safe place for you, and if it isn't, then something can and will be done. You have the right to show up every day and learn, and thanks to David's Law, that will happen.
*This entry is dedicated to Maurine Molak, Kim Hess, Kara Valeca-Yocom, Jacki James, Kevin Childers, and so many others who know the pain of losing a child to suicide, but continue to help others in memory of their child.
Monday, September 4, 2017
"Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed"- John Lennon
People never cease to amaze me with their capacity for ignorance. The things they say and do can leave a person dumbfounded and speechless, and just when you think it couldn't get any worse, one of them rises up and does something to elevate ignorance to a new high. In fact, just last week, Jacki, Peyton's mother called to tell me that Anytown Middle School*, where Peyton was a student at the time of his death, had a small memorial garden at the school to honor students at the school that had passed away. However, when she approached John Smith* the principal of Anytown Middle School about placing a memorial stone in the garden to honor Peyton, Mr. Smith told her "No," because Peyton had completed suicide, and he was worried that this may encourage other students to take their lives in order to be memorialized because research shows that it will. After several moments of silence, and once I was able to pick my jaw up off the ground, I asked her if she was kidding, had Mr. Smith really said that? Sadly, he had.
I was stunned. I thought of calling the school myself to speak to Mr. Smith. After all, I have a litany of profanity at my disposal, and after hearing what he had said, I was not only ready to use it, but to be creative and use new and exotic combinations as well. Once I realized that would be counter productive, and having ruled out the three hour drive to speak to Mr. Smith in person, cooler heads prevailed. Jacki asked me to hold off for a few days so that she could once again speak to Mr. Smith. After she spoke to him again, he informed her that ALL research indicates that memorials at school are bad, despite his school having a memorial garden on campus.
I was curious about this research that Mr. Smith used to say that memorials are bad, and that memorializing a student that completed suicide would lead to more suicides. Keep in mind that I have taught for 27 years, with 21 of those having taught English. That means I have taught the research process numerous times, and that thanks to advances in technology, the research paper is no longer the daunting monster it used to be, but a streamlined process. What I have discovered over the years is that you can find two sides to both issues. For example, I have found that there are two sides to smoker's rights, the legalization of all narcotics, or even the good things Hitler and the Nazis did in Germany. So it comes as no surprise that there is research to support Mr. Smith's claims, but as our media has shown, you can the that material out of context and use it to prove any point you want. For example Mr. Smith is worried that allowing a memorial stone for Peyton would lead to other students taking their lives. This is what is known as the Werther Effect, term coined in 1974 by David Phillips in American Sociological Review (Schuurman). Phillips believed that a highly publicized suicide may become a role model for other suicides, especially among adolescents and young adults. This seems to be a reasonable concern for Mr. Smith and other school administrators. After all, they have the monumental task of providing a safe learning environment for all of their students. Perhaps Mr. Smith is afraid of glamorizing suicide or making Peyton a role model. Maybe Mr. Smith is worried that should he allow a memorial stone, and another student thought it would be great if they had one too, so they take their life too. As a result of that death, both Mr. Smith and the school district are held liable.
However, what Mr. Smith didn't take into consideration is that in 1984 I.M.Wasserman, concluded that not all stories about suicide deaths lead to an increase in suicide deaths, but only stories about the suicide deaths of celebrities or other highly publicized deaths. Furthermore, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) has determined “the role of imitation or contagion is less well-established than other risk factors” especially noting depressive illness and history of past suicide attempts (Schuurmann). In fact, there is not a single documented account of a suicide occurring because a previous student received “recognition” through a memorial service, and there are multiple situations where cluster suicides have occurred when no school memorial services were held (Schuurmann). If no memorial is allowed, it will not stop the students from talking about what happened. Instead, to the students it will show that the adults are afraid and need to control the narrative. It makes the students no less dead. It also provides no productive channels for honoring the deceased. It also tells any student that is dealing with suicidal ideation to keep your issues to yourself, we (the school) aren't going to talk about it. Then again, that is just my research.
Most of all Mr. Smith, by not allowing a memorial stone for my son, you are devaluing his life to me and to those that knew him. Peyton was a living breathing person that died. By not allowing that stone, you are telling me that my son's death meant nothing. Do any of the memorial markers in that garden represent a student that died of cancer or some other horrible illness? Are you telling me that any of those kids was more important and noble than my son? Do you realize that Peyton died from an illness as well? His was an illness in his brain. One that convinced him that he couldn't be happy. One that told him the world would be better off without him. One that allowed him to believe that his mother and I would be happier without him around. he didn't ask for this disease any more than some one asks for cancer or diabetes. Not only that, but any other child in the same place as Peyton is now actually discouraged from seeking help as you have implied to them that their death would be meaningless.
Jacki and I are not asking for a ceremony or to interrupt the learning process. We simply want to honor our son in the same manner that the school has honored other students. Hopewell Middle School planted a tree in Peyton's memory just a few months after his passing. They invited Jacki and I,as well as some of Peyton's friends, to speak . It served as a teachable moment for the school, and isn't that why we are in education for? Not all lessons are in a text book. Most of all, Peyton was memorialized in the Anytown Middle School year book at the end of the 2014-2015 school year.
I understand that this may not be the popular decision to make, but what is popular is not always right. You can't pretend that one of your students made a decision that took his life any more than you can deny that his mother and I still grieve his loss. I went through the board policies and the student/parent handbook, and there is nothing prohibiting a memorial stone, especially when it has been allowed for others. A rock with a name is not asking too much, is it?
Monday, July 3, 2017
Please allow me to express my deepest condolences to you and your family during this time. Your daughter was a beautiful child. Every picture I ever saw of her showed a brilliant and contagious smile. I know there is nothing I can say to bring you comfort, but unfortunately, I know the pain of losing a child. The whole idea of losing a child goes against nature. No parent is supposed to outlive a child, and life as you know it will never be the same. Know that grief is not linear, it is a non-stop roller coaster, and there is nothing at Six Flags that can prepare you for the ride. After Peyton’s death, I was inundated by advice from other people, but the best advice came from people who had already been in my shoes. I want to share with you the advice that they shared with me, as well as some ideas from others who have been there.
First and foremost, take care of yourself. Right now, you are in survival mode. You can experience the gambit of emotions within hours. You can go from sorrow to anger and back to sorrow all in one day. Whether you want to or not, you need to eat, drink, sleep, and get some fresh air. When Peyton was in the hospital, I dropped ten pounds because I didn't care what happened. I bargained with God to take me and let Peyton live, but here I am. I now know I am here for a reason, and given time, you will know your reason as well, so please eat something and drink plenty of water with it. It may seem simple to sit on the couch and lose yourself in mindless television shows (there are more than enough), but you need to get up and take a walk outside. I know it is summer and hotter than the hinges of Hell right now, but fresh air and exercise will help your mood. While you are out, look for dragonflies, butterflies, and cardinals. There are many that see these as a sign (there are more here) that our loved ones are still near us. Most of all, breathe. I know it may seem silly to say because this is normally an involuntary reaction, but sometimes it helps to take a deep cleansing breath. It may also help calm you down and help get you focused.
Let others help you. People will offer their help, take it. It may be running to the grocery store, doing your laundry, cooking a meal, cleaning your house, sitting in a room with you when you don’t want to be alone, or watching your kids so that you can take a nap. There is no shame in asking for help. There are many people that want to help, but don’t know how. Ask if they would mow the lawn, take your car for an oil change, or give you a ride if you feel unable to drive. On the flip side, it is okay to tell people “no”. Your friends will extend invitations to you in hopes of cheering you up. You are under no obligation to go. If you are not up to it, then don’t go. True friends will understand. The same goes for family. Just because the family has always gathered at Uncle Joe’s for Thanksgiving does not obligate you to go. The first year is perhaps the hardest, especially the holidays. You can take a pass on them if you want to, or you can even start your own new traditions.
Go see your doctor. The stress you are under will tear you apart emotionally and physically. No doubt you have lost sleep, or perhaps that is all you do. They can advise you on everything from sleep to diet and exercise that will help. More than likely, they will do a depression screening. Answer openly and honestly. There is no shame in being diagnosed with depression at this point. With the Hell you are going through right now, no one will be surprised. Your doctor may prescribe medication to help with your mood and sleep. If they do, you may want to consider trying it. They have your best interest at heart. If you do not think that the meds are helping, then consult the doctor again about something else. There is no one sure-fire answer. However, if you feel that they are not helping and want to stop, consult your doctor. Stopping some of the meds cold turkey can have adverse side effects. Sleep is also important as well. After Peyton passed, I didn’t sleep well at all. I had a nonstop hamster wheel going in my brain, and it never got tired. However, I knew I needed sleep, so I began to use Ambien as needed. I don’t use it all the time, but even two and a half years later, the hamster will climb back up there. Your continued health is important, so maintain it.
Join a support group or counseling, or both. Just like anything else, there is no one size fits all, so you may go through several groups or counselors before you find one you like and are comfortable in. I cannot begin to tell you how much both helped me. My support group has been a blessing to me. My wife and I didn’t like the first group we attended. It was a general grief group, and we didn’t feel as though it was a good fit. The second group was specifically for people that had lost a loved one to suicide, and we were welcomed with open arms. Not only that, we no longer felt like we were alone in the world. I still continue to go to this day, not only because it helps me, but I see myself helping others that are new to the journey, and that helps me as well. I also joined several grief groups on Facebook (Compassionate Friends is a great place to start). It may seem strange writing about your grief to total strangers, but it works. Sadly, there are many people throughout the world that have tragically lost a child. It gives you the chance to share your grief with others who can relate. Therapy helped as well. I tried to suck it up at first, but one day, four months to the day that I lost Peyton, I completely lost my sh*t in the coaches’ office. I sat there and cried, unable to stop. Eventually, one of the other coaches walked in and just held me and let me cry. I knew then that I wasn’t going to get through this alone. I went to several counselors before I found one that felt right. Once I went as far as I could with her, I stopped going only to discover that I needed more help, so I found another. It goes like that. There are times when you may need to go weekly, others when you may only go once a month. You are human, and no one expects you to go through this alone.
I know right now, your emotions are all over the place. Scream if you need to scream, cry if you need to cry, go out in the back yard and take an axe to a tree if you think that will help. You are allowed to cry whenever and wherever you want to. I have had to pull into parking lots to cry because something I heard on the radio triggered me. My wife lost it in line at a Starbucks when everything just became too much or her. You are only responsible to you at this point. Talk about your daughter all you want when you want. There is no time line on your grief. There is no calendar that tells you when you should be over this because the answer is never. She was your baby, your girl, your daughter. That is not something you will ever get over. You also need to ease up on yourself. I know I beat myself up for the longest time. I blamed myself for Peyton's death, and despite what others told me, I refused to ease up. I kept playing the “if only” game over and over in my head. If only I had done this or said that, then Peyton would still be alive. I was reminded by an old friend about the something I was told long about using “if”. He reminded me that “if my aunt had nads, she’d be my uncle.” You can “if” yourself into oblivion, but it will not change the outcome. Somehow, some way, this was part of God’s plan, and yes, I was really pissed at God for quite a while. However, I put my faith in God, and I know that Peyton is in a better place, and he is no longer in pain. Know that where your daughter is, everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.
There are also a few “don’ts” I would like to convey. Don’t rush any decisions or make any major decisions right now. The saying is give it a year. I did that, and I am glad I did. Looking back, I would have made some very grave errors in judgement if I had gone with my gut at the time. Any decisions I would have made would have led to horrific consequences. Don’t feel obligated to anyone whether it is friends, or work, or whatever. True friends will understand, and work will always be there. Neither of those is a priority for you, you are the priority. Don’t let people talk you into what they think is right. Do what you want to do. Don’t look for comfort or escape in the wrong place. Avoid alcohol or other intoxicants. Food can be a danger too. They may momentarily dull the pain, but when the effect wears off, reality will come flooding back with a vengeance. don't get upset if someone says something stupid, especially if they mean well. No one is out to upset you, but finding the right words come hard. Repress the urge to throat punch them. Don't get upset when others move on. Soon, people will go back to their lives and families, but you will still be in this never ending hell. It will frustrate you because you not because of anything that they do, but because their lives are back to normal, and your's will never be again. You will see families together laughing and carrying on, and would will want to scream, "My child is gone! How can you be so happy?" Most of all, don't forget your family. Your kids will need you as much as you need them. Family takes priority over everything, including work. If your coworkers and employer don't understand, screw 'em. You can always get another job, but you only get one family.
Finally, know this, it gets better. Don’t get me wrong, you have a long road ahead of you, and it is going to suck for a long time. I’s sorry I am being blunt, but I am not going to blow sunshine up you’re a$$ and tell you all will be back to normal soon. It never will. Eventually, you will establish a new normal. Things are going to suck for a long, long time. Then one day, you’re going to wake up, and things will suck a little less, and even less a week or two later. That’s not to say there won’t be backslides. You will feel like you are standing in the ocean facing the beach. You will feel the waves hitting you from behind. One might push you forward, the next might hit the back of your knees, the next may just wash over your ankles, only to have the next knock you flat on your face. All you can do is keep getting up, and bracing for what is to come. Don’t get discouraged because you will learn to live with it. Rely on others, rely on each other, and rely on your faith. As I said before, there is nothing I can say or do that will ease the pain. There is no magic elixir or time line that will lead to happiness. There are no short cuts or cheats to relieve your pain. There is just time.
During that time, you collect memories of your child. Have people send you pictures and videos of your child, as well as having them write stories and their favorite memories. You can use these to create a memory book. It has been suggested the best way to do this is to set up a memorial page on Facebook and have others put pictures there. Even though physical presence is gone, her spirit can stay with you forever.
As the days become weeks, the weeks become moths, and the months become years, the pain will recede. It will always be there, but it will not be all consuming. Rely on friends, rely on family, and rely on faith, and it will get better. Know that myself and others are here for you when you need us. There is no favor too small to ignore, and there is no hour too late or too early to ask. All we ask in return is that you let us.