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.