This week has been one of the most devastating weeks I have experienced in a very long time. Two deaths by suicide of people far too young to leave this world. A community rocked with grief, alumni and students angered and frustrated by what they call the failure of the school administration & the adults in the towns, everyone grappling with the new reality of our collective loss. Blog posts blaming the town & the school, the comment sections slowly filling with divisive messages. It’s easy to get angry. It’s easy to find fault & look for blame. It’s harder to feel the sorrow, the loss, the sadness. Buried in the middle of all of this is the undeniable fact that we are all hurting. We are all suffering. And, yes, there is a problem.
The problem is mental health, and it is a problem that exists in Anytown, USA. The ‘problem’ is that teenage years can be some of the most difficult emotional years of our lives, and yet I feel as if our teenagers feel like they are experiencing something abnormal in this town, in this school system. The cliques, the pressure to excel academically, athletically, theatrically, musically, to be skinny, to be beautiful, to be the smartest, to be the best dressed, to have friends, to belong, to have a nice house, to go to parties, to have someone to sit with at lunch, to have money, to never get in trouble, to own a car, and (of course) to get into the best college…ask any adult, and I’m guessing they will agree that this describes what high school felt like for them at some point during those four years. I went to high school in Pittsford, NY as well as Stamford, CT, and I struggled to find my place, just like students today continue to struggle. The pressure on my friends and me was similar to the pressure that exists today.
And, it took a toll on some of us, just like it’s taking a toll on some of our teens now.
I did not escape without scars. Not even close. I had an eating disorder that I battled for twenty years. It’s not something I talk about much, and yet I feel like it’s critical for me to share this today. Why? Because I want teenagers to know that I get it. I understand. I have been in your shoes and have walked that painful walk. I know what it’s like to feel like you want to be invisible, and I too have experienced the shame of being ‘the one’.
The one who struggled.
The one who couldn’t cope.
The one who was less than everyone else.
The one who couldn’t hack college and ended up in an in-patient hospital program.
The one who transferred to a new school.
The one who took 6 years to graduate from college.
The one who never went on to get a Masters.
Here’s the good news: I made it through all of this and live a happy, blessed, fulfilling life. The shame of my past has dissipated and I no longer feel the need to hide.
I did not get to this point on my own. I got here with the help of my family, my friends, my community.
Yes. My community.
And this is why I’m writing this piece today. As a community, we need to come together, not crumble during these difficult times. Blaming a town or a school administration isn’t going to help anything. As a community, we need to focus on solutions. We need to keep talking about what each of us needs to help get us through, and more than anything, we need to be active listeners.
The current students at Acton-Boxborough did just this. They were hurting and they shared this with the administration. They gave the administration constructive criticism and asked for what they needed to help them process their grief. The school, in turn, listened. They shifted, they made changes, and they took a different course of action. Did they get it ‘right’ initially? No, they didn’t. What matters is that together, they created an open, mature, respectful dialogue, and it’s instigating changes.
I hope our community follows in the footsteps of our high school students and the administration at AB. We need to look out for each other, as teenagers and as adults. We need to come together. We have the perfect opportunity to do just this, by the way. I am on the Board of the Acton-Boxborough United Way, and we are hosting our first annual ‘Em-Power’ 5k run to help raise money and awareness for our Healthy Teen Initiative. What better way to show that we are a community than by walking or running in an event dedicated to empower our teens? Sign up now – here’s the link.
To the families who lost a child – my deepest condolences. There are no soothing words to offer other than to let you know we are all filled with grief for you. We are here for you.
To the students at AB – my deepest condolences to you as well. As a parent and an adult, I am so proud of you for how you all came together to speak up and advocate for changes that are in the best interest of the students, and ultimately, our community. Your letter brought together students from all walks of life and made it a powerful voice. You became our role model. Continue down this path. Take this time to step outside of your usual pattern of life, look around you, and ask yourself if you can do something to lift up someone around you.
To the AB administration – thank you for listening to our children and working hard to help make AB a more supportive environment.
With love –