By Steve Straessle, Principal of Catholic High
Photography by Jamison Mosley
The tapping of ink pens provides a drumbeat for the lesson. If the pens are in motion, I know they’re paying attention. They twirl the blue or black instruments, chew on them or continue that incessant tapping that used to infuriate me, but now is the background music to a well-received lecture. Kids need secondary stimulation, and I know if a pen is tapping there are big thoughts occurring in the room.
Education is a grand undertaking. Like a novel that flows through characters and events, it sticks with you long after you’ve finished. Obviously, the lessons learned in algebra or English class are the basis for future employment and are the vehicles by which we create a productive life. But it’s the lessons within the lessons that arm us for the mercurial events that we experience as we grow. As a high school principal, I tell the teachers I work with again and again they are immortal. Their students will talk about them to their own children someday and those stories will be passed along for generations. The beauty of teaching is that whether teachers are remembered as immortally good or immortally bad is almost solely up to the educator in the classroom.
Teachers are the first to receive kids when they’ve been wounded. Students come to school the day after they’ve learned their parents are divorcing or right after a grandparent died or in the first few moments of relationship rejection. Teachers hear of parental job losses or other financial worries and teachers awaken kids who didn’t sleep because their parents fought all night. Teachers listen quietly as students explain their worries. Or worse, when they don’t explain anything at all.
I have written essays about boys who died of accidental drug overdoses. One was a boy from a large public high school. Another was from a very small private high school and the other was from a Catholic school. Just reading those very basic descriptors underscores the fact that there’s no safe place from substance abuse, that it permeates every school, every institution, no matter the size or location. While their schools differed, they also had a very strong commonality: Each boy who died from an accidental overdose was more than the sum of his greatest mistake.
Teachers see the lessons within the lessons, the stories within the stories. We see these kids as more than just a too-soon death. We see them as alive in their passions and afire with potential. One of the boys I mentioned was an Eagle Scout and champion wrestler. Another was a favorite son, a dutiful boy who thought of family time as the best time. The musician and low-key funny guy was the third, and he had no enemies in his life. But each ultimately turned one way when he should have paused and gone the other route.
The fact that teachers handle difficult personal situations with their students is nothing new, but now we are doing triage in an age where impulsivity has more complicated consequences. If we were to scale the level of danger a child experiences, we could draw a graph and note the dangers that are within arm’s reach of his or her impulsivity. Thirty years ago, when I was in high school, the negative turns within arm’s reach were fewer. Today, however, the entire world is a just a short grab away. While there’s some good to that kind of access, an extended arm these days can reach for temporary salves that offer no healing, but a short-term and dangerous release from a wound.
As a community, we are tuned to fighting access to opioids and punishing those who provide them to our children. But to simply go after the drug companies (a good step), jail the dealers (another good step) or undertake drug education programs (a great step), we also have to address the cause of a child going down that path in the first place. It’s important to address the wound, to discuss genetic markers and chemical balances, to underscore that one child may safely turn away from drugs while his best friend may become an addict on the first puff or pill. To do otherwise is to play whack-a-mole with symptoms while never finding a cure.
Labeling kids as good or bad doesn’t help. Instead, the majority of our resources should be used for figuring out the why of kids doing illicit drugs, particularly opioids. At that point, we can walk the path of solution by employing two intertwined and equally important motivations: accountability and compassion.
In terms of accountability, a child must know that life has healthy boundaries. We must teach that those boundaries are not constrictive, but constructive. Therefore, it’s important to call out negative behavior when we see it and to have appropriate, well-measured consequences. Without boundaries, human dignity collapses into a morass of selfish and destabilizing acts.
Then compassion kicks in. Once the consequence has sparked learning, we underscore that no matter the depth of their sins, children are good, they are worthy and they are loved. Without compassion, a child will bleed out from his or her wound until there is nothing left to salvage.
The lesson within the lesson of education is that every child has value and should never be thrown to the trash heap of a lesser life due to substance abuse. If we probe their wounds, if we teach them accountability, if we demonstrate compassion in every instance, we have the best chance at turning this epidemic around and creating a community that never again mourns because of a story disrupted too soon.
As I finish my lesson, the pens stop tapping and the boys sit in silence for a few seconds before the bell rings. I don’t allow them to put books away until the very sounding of the bell, hoping that the silence will allow even a few short bursts of contemplation. It’s easy to look over a sea of young faces and think about their victories and their challenges, their wounds and their perseverance. As that class shuffles out and another one meanders in, the pens start tapping again and the lecture rekindles like a well-tended fire. The hope that the lesson will take hold continues.