They Will Thank Us in the Future: Help the Kids Who are Hurting

There’s too much silence when it comes to talk of mental health issues and kids. That is, too much silence for the right things, for the soul and the need for heart-comfort, while there is so much vocal fear of societal alienation. Total anonymity, as an attempt to protect the sufferer when they are minors, only isolates them more. By keeping news of mental suffering secret from the people who would really help them, the suffering young person does not find relief.

Obviously, there are the right and wrong people to tell, but the trustworthy pool of people for every young person needs to be widened. Once, I was at a staff meeting at the private elementary school I worked at. The topic of the meeting was student health protocols. We talked about asthma, Epi-pens, seizures, diabetes, concussions, broken arms. We named names in confidence and protection of this sensitive information, but discussed these cases openly as it related to our ability to help these kids. I asked if there are children with mental health diagnoses we should know about. I was met with a glare from my middle manager, a ring of silence.

“That kind of thing is usually only shared with the school counselor,” said the director.

“And only if the parent chooses to share it.”

So, a parent’s social fear increases a child’s social fear, and the terror of stigma is passed on from parent to child. And that kind of thing, with all the stigma already implied in the manager’s voice, persists.

This is all incredibly stupid and isolates people, making the condition itself even worse. People with diabetes or cancer don’t get the same treatment. Depression, anxiety, PTSD; all these thrive on silence, isolation and shame. At the very least, all the adult professionals responsible for a child’s wellbeing, including teachers and childcare workers, should be entrusted with this information and taught what to do with it, how to appropriately protect it, and how to understand and take care of the child who has it, no differently than a child with severe asthma or a broken bone. It helps enormously to know what a kid is going through: whether their inappropriate behavior is merely a cranky growth phase for a kid, or if there’s something more serious underneath, such as depression, trauma or the death of a loved one.

Some of the same stigma follows diseases such as AIDS. Treat all blood as if it’s contaminated, says the protocol. I worry that this is ultimately bad for humanity, to suspect that all blood is awful and dirty and carrying contagious death. It would be better to have compassion on those who certifiably have a blood-borne pathogen, treating them with respect and the care they need, but openly, so that we do not live with the terror of our own human blood.

I’ve worked in after-school childcare programs that deal with these things. I was siting with a second grade girl and a first grade boy one day, coloring pictures together. I commented on how pretty those flowery paper decorations are on the wall, the ones we pulled out of the leftover bin in the supplies closet. The little boy said, somberly,

“Those are from A’s dad’s memorial.”

“What?!” was my response. “Did he die?”

Both kids looked at me like I was an idiot who hadn’t heard.

“We all stood in a circle to sing and remember him,” said the little girl.

Apparently everyone knew except me. A was a fifth grade boy at the time who who was a regular in the after-school program. He had been misbehaving only a little, but I noticed many other adults coming by to tenderly ask him how he is doing. The program director hugged his mother. I wondered what happened, but figured that if it was my business, someone would tell me. But it turns out it sure was my business. I had missed a mere email relaying the news –really, a damn email announcing the death of a parent we all knew. I found out from two small children what I should’ve heard verbally from my adult colleagues. Good thing I didn’t say, “Hey, A, is your dad picking you up today?” –totally not knowing why that would devastate him. It was part of my job to interact with the parents at pick-up time and get the kids signed in and out. This was something I needed to know.

… … …

A younger relative of mine, when she was sixteen, went through a terrible episode of self harm and depression. I remember that I had called and emailed her to just ask how things are going, wanting to hear her voice. I had no knowledge of what she was going through. She had been hospitalized, the whole psychiatric works, and I didn’t know. Her mom had to clear the house of all objects my young relative could hurt herself with. It turned out her parents were also getting a divorce at the time, further breaking my family apart, and I didn’t know about it.

This, a family, isn’t some legalistic place of employment, but a paper-free biological web of relationships, of deeply personal memories, bound by ancestors and land. The human family should be there for its own more than any other human social unit in the world.

I pulled the truth out of my reluctant uncle, spilling the beans, and my grandmother, thwarting this life-threatening silencing.

“But I was trying to protect her privacy,” he said. 

Yeah, I thought, and you’re  also protecting the growth of her silence, shame and isolation while your at it.

And maybe my young relative did, at age sixteen, want all this to be kept a secret, but that didn’t make it the wise thing to do. Luckily, this story concludes well for her sake: she’s come far from those days and, last I knew, is doing extraordinarily better as a young graduate of high school confidently heading to college. I’m enormously proud of her, and relived that she was supported. And I still miss my family, the few who are left, more than I can say.

We are supposed to protect and empower minors. To hell with their massing embarrassment when real help is on the line. A good adult will know how to meet that feeling of shame with deep honor and respect for the young person, so that they know they do not have to feel ashamed in the first place. They’re not able to help themselves yet. They will thank us in the future.

 

 

 

Recomposed from an original journal entry written September 1st, 2016

“What’s Your Biggest Weakness?” –”None of Your Damn Business. What’s Yours?”

I recently declined to continue interviewing with a stupid little start-up, for several reasons listed below. At least the hiring manager or recruiter or whoever they are had the idea to ask why I didn’t want their money. I responded in these exact words, as follows.

Feedback: any company that thinks it’s appropriate to ask a person what their “biggest weakness” is clearly lacks respect for other peoples’ privacy, dignity and society’s basic social norms. The only answer to this question you deserve is: none of your damn business. What’s yours?  Such a question is completely inappropriate and absolutely insulting coming from a company; it is only appropriate for a person’s innermost private circle of relationships and is paramount to asking about a person’s medical or sexual history.

Furthermore, I don’t have have time, nor do I feel respected by, the idea of sitting through two or three rounds of interviews, including a lengthy phone call when I said “I have only a few minutes”, plus a “trial run” with a fake phone call in addition to test a person’s responses before they have even been trained. Extremely few companies for extremely few positions are that important or deserve such effort, and [your company] isn’t one of them. If a company like [your company] thinks it’s that much of a big deal, it’s clearly too self-absorbed and will likely treat applicants and people working for them as if we are desperate. And we are not.

The job market is excellent for job seekers right now, and nobody with a real life and self-respect is going to jump through these hoops for a little start-up that’s thinks it’s so hot. Even when the job market isn’t ideal for job-seekers, the strongest candidates still have more self-respect than to bend over and beg. They are willing to tough it out and use their intelligence for the right opportunity.

A Healthy Restlessness

The following is adapted from a letter I was inspired to write to my director at the school I work at. It has helped me clarify my own thoughts on consciously developing joy in my work, while thinking more seriously about striving to be in a position where I am able to use my talents to my full potential.

What a beautiful summer this is. The rain is paying off!

After nearly a couple years of working here, I feel called to dig deeper and contribute much more of my abilities. It feels really good to come to this realization.

Recently, [my life partner] and I had been considering moving much further out to Duvall, where I lived a few years ago. That would’ve given me a very long commute and altered my hopes with [the school]; however we have made our final decision to stay here in Shoreline for at least several more years, maybe the long term. It is great to be this close to the school. I was also considering doing part-or-full time college again, but have put a pause on that while I discern what kind of graduate education, if any, I can use, and the expense of it as well.

So, with the decisions turning out this way, and the energy I have feeling more abundant, I’d like to see about possibilities of doing more here.

My current position [after-school activity care provider] has already taught me so much. I see the great value of this program, the freedom of restorative rest and unbridled creativity it brings to the kids. I feel deeply honored when the children (and parents!) communicate to me, in their numerous ways, how much my role here means to them. What a gift I didn’t expect. Kids have so much wisdom of their own that all of us adults can learn a lot from!

With that being said, I have been feeling as though my talents are not able to be utilized fully in this position. This feels like a healthy sort of restlessness, a greater clarity about what does and doesn’t return to me a sense of fulfillment in my work.

A few weeks ago, when I was working those two full days substituting with [my colleague] in preschool, I had such a sense of fulfillment in that I was able to use my talents to design and co-lead the two whole days for the children. [My colleague] and I worked amiably as two equals in our gifts to make those days rewarding for the children and for us as a team. She knew the outline of the class day and so kindly filled me in on the basic expectations. She lead the snack and nap times and so much of the supportive logistics that I did not have knowledge of. For my part, I felt the freedom to take initiative in leading the children on a nature exploration in the wetlands, reading to them with my animated voice (so fun for me and the kids), talking about plants, maps, birds, social and physical awareness of other humans and animals, implanting curiosity and questions to carry, art and physical movement, and being my “tomboy mentor” self that I do well with kids of all ages.

I think of mentoring as an ancient way of imparting wisdom and understanding, modeling joyful wonder. It is a way of teaching through play, curiosity and love for the beautiful world. The centrality of the living world is of great importance here. This is what has drawn me to play-based work with younger kids, and a growing interest in engaging the intellects of older children. I believe that the spirit of teaching and learning, with mentoring at its root, is the act of remembering what we already know within us as a species. Small humans are not born as empty vessels, but with a vivified interior life of virtuous instincts that yearn to be honored and encouraged. This way of learning is deeply anthropological to our species, the forerunner to didactic teaching as inherited from the Renaissance and now commonly practiced in industrial and developing societies. Gladly, though, we are now experiencing a renewed interest in this timeless way of cultivating young humans into their whole selves.

I mention those two days substituting in preschool as a positive example of days well spent, in contrast to some of the frustrations I have been experiencing in my current position for a while. This is partly the come-and-go nature of the after-school drop-in setting (naturally) where I do not necessarily have the time, structure or situational confidence to practice uninterrupted mentoring with a given group of kids. When I start to really engage authentically in mentoring, even a simple project with one or several kids, no sooner is one of them called off to do something else, distracted by another interest, or gone home.

And this is okay– they need this freedom of unstructured time. In a traditional village setting, mentoring works well with the informality of relationships, as parents and mentors would share relaxed friendships and even living space. But we are in a very formal school setting of the modern world, with appropriate separations between here-and-there. I am at peace with that. Adaptability is prime. So I feel called to give my talents where I have more space to do real leadership, more of a conscious desire on the part of parents for their children to benefit from my own work with them; more jurisdiction….

…I am wondering what other opportunities may be open for me. Are there any Teacher’s Assistant positions open where I could practice co-leading, or fulfilling assistant leadership? Would it be very disruptive if I were offered something else than [the after-school program] and needed to do only a new position instead?… As much as I want to help [the after-school program], I really don’t want to miss a good career opportunity, either. What kind of further work experience and education would I need to someday advance to the role of lead teacher? Would creating an additional whole new program in mentoring Natural Awareness be an option? Might I teach this as an after-school class in addition to [the after-school program], as [other staff members] have done?

Thank you, truly, for the times that you have expressed appreciation and encouraging warmth to myself and others. It has boosted my confidence in working here and improving myself. I hope I can keep contributing!

 

Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.
For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.
And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the wine.
And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.”

–Kahlil Gibran, ‘The Prophet’