Choose Love

Another mass shooting. We know there will be more. How do we feel? Anger? Fear? Apathy? How do we respond? Do we fight back? Do we hide? None of these thoughts and feelings seem to make me feel any better. I grew up in an America full of hope and promise; Now we seem to be waiting for our turn to experience tragedy. We escape to artificial virtual realities and live at the surface of our emotions to avoid the depth of our pain, but deep down, we know we must face these feelings and circumstances head on.

Our current reality isn’t the one I hoped for. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t have picked this situation, but this is my life, and my life gains meaning by my response to challenges that present themselves, not the privilege that was handed to me. I’m not on this planet to simply take in oxygen and consume nutrients. I’ve been given this opportunity to make the world a better place, and the more difficult the path, the stronger my conviction must become.

Our world is so full of anger that individuals are choosing to fire repeated rounds into crowds of innocent people and often take their own lives shortly afterwards. I can’t simply chalk this up to mental health or gun access; It’s happening too frequently. Instead, I believe people are in so much pain that this outburst of aggression provides an emotional release. Individuals are choosing these types of action because they believe the results are the best their life has to offer. I feel bad for anyone who feels so tortured that this seems like their best path forward.

I wish I had a solution that could solve these problems quickly. I don’t, but I do have a solution. We need to rebuild a world full of hope and inspiration. As distant as this dream seems, all it requires is for people to purposefully stand together and walk in the direction of love. We must put into context all of the minor difficulties of our lives, we must create space to take care of our own mental and social well being, and we must invest in the people in our communities so they have better opportunities and choices. Instead of burying our emotions or letting them overpower us, we must use them to fuel us to act in positive ways. Things are only going to get better when we start to invest in one another and start believing in a peaceful and compassionate future for all people. Let us walk together with love knowing that the challenges ahead won’t be easy, but knowing that the future is worth the investment. When tragedy hits, let’s focus our energy on becoming a stronger community that supports all of our members. Let us have faith that with good intentions and right actions we will produce positive outcomes. Let us stand together to build the future of our collective dreams.

A Needed Conversation

Healthy relations depend on the mental and physical health of both partners. If a woman is unsafe, unsupported, and unprotected, it will be difficult for her to feel healthy, strong, and confident in her life. I work at an all-girls high school with 650 students, and the current message in the press that a girl’s body is not valued and is unnecessary to protect is simply unacceptable. We need to find a way to do better. As a teacher, I have a responsibility to help my students skillfully navigate our complicated world. As a male, I need to join the conversation about how we can best support women. If I want to live in a healthy society, I need to support a positive growth environment for all of its members, and I believe that starts with a conversation.

We are constantly persuaded by advertisements to seek out quick thrills. Watch this movie! Eat this dessert! Drive this car! Wear these clothes! Drink this beverage! It feels good, so live in the moment, and go for it! We promote the thrill of sex in the same way by separating the feelings of sex from the long-term implications of intimacy, and I think this opens the door for sexual abuse. Individuals are seeking sexual thrills, but intimacy requires two people, and for intimacy to be healthy, both participants must consent. Personal connection gets reduced when there is loud music, dimmed lights, and intoxication, and it’s completely lost when an individual is using someone else’s body as a tool to produce a thrill.

We need to help boys and girls realize that intimacy is more nuanced than a temporary thrill, and we need to be able to talk about it. We need to explore how certain situations or behaviors make people feel uncomfortable, and we need to learn new strategies to promote the formation of healthy relationships. We need to learn how to create safe environments for women to live in while promoting a culture that prioritizes mental and physical health for everyone. By teaching boys how to become better human beings, we will help girls feel safe, and support vibrant relationships. We can make improvements in our communities that will benefit all of its members, but we need to start by having a conversation.

Boys Will Be Boys With Respect for Boundaries

I recently read about an experiment performed by social researcher, Jackson Katz. He asked the male members of his audience what they do on a daily basis to prevent sexual assault. He was met at first with silence and then some awkward laughter, but it was clear that the men were simply unaware of what he was asking. Katz then posed the same question to the female members of the audience and nearly every hand went up resulting in a lengthy list of, think 30 to 40, responses. The men were stunned.

Women learn at a very young age to constantly be on guard to prevent sexual assault. We subconsciously make choices in our daily routines and I am not sure we are even fully aware how much of our day is spent trying to stay safe. I, in particular, check my backseat when I get in my car, immediately lock my car doors, carry a taser when I run alone or in the dark, think way too much about whether my running clothes are too revealing, avoid parking garages when possible, and obsessively check that the doors to our house are locked and the outside lights are on. Until I read about Katz’s experiments, I had never thought much about the fact that men simply don’t have to factor in these decisions or this fear into their daily routines.

About four years ago, I was out for a run early on a Sunday morning. It was daylight but I was running in an area that is pretty quiet at that time of day on the weekend. All of a sudden, I heard male voices behind me. I looked back and they were walking, wearing jeans, and carrying backpacks, all of which seemed a bit off to me. I got that uneasy feeling, to which most women can relate. The hair on the back of your neck stands up. Your heart starts racing, and you just have that debilitating feeling of fear. I kept running forward trying not to let onto the fact that I was absolutely terrified and certain that I was going to be attacked. Finally, after a few minutes of total panic, I saw a group of three runners heading toward me on the other side of the road. I crossed the road and asked if I could run back toward town with them for a bit. The three runners included a female college student and her parents. They said as soon as they saw me, and the two men behind me, they had a funny feeling and were glad I crossed the road to join them. After that day, I carried a taser with me anytime I ran alone, for almost two years. My point in recounting this story is to ask you to consider whether or not a man who was running alone would have even thought twice about two other men walking behind him. Why am I, and most women I know, so conditioned to make choices every day out of the fear of being sexually assaulted?

How do we change something that is so ingrained in our culture, accepted as status quo, or even “common sense” safety measures? We need to start by stopping the “boys will be boys” rhetoric in its tracks. Boys should be held to the same high standards for appropriate behavior, particularly as it pertains to the treatment of girls, from a very young age. Let’s stop giving them a pass for making girls feel uncomfortable simply because they are boys and cannot be trusted to respect boundaries or adhere to societal rules for appropriate behavior. Parents, teach your boys from a young age the meaning of abusive behavior. Abusive behavior can be verbal or physical. Boys must learn to take cues from girls what might make one feel uncomfortable and not another.

And what about our girls? Do they even know what constitutes abusive behavior? When we get uncomfortable due to the behavior of a man, unwanted verbal or physical attention, we are taught to just “lighten up”, to giggle awkwardly, and to not be such a prude. Most of us even remember being told from a young age, for me it was elementary school, that when a boy teased you or picked on you, it meant that he had a crush on you. This is how it starts. Boys get a pass and girls are taught to just accept it as the status quo.

I think back to my first experience with boundaries being violated. I was sitting at my desk in third grade, and I turned around in my desk to see that they boy sitting behind me had cut off my hair. I don’t remember the exact response from school administration, or even from our parents, but I do remember the message of “boys will be boys” being communicated. Was this somehow my fault? Was my hair so shiny and full and long that he simply couldn’t resist? Should I not have let my guard down while learning my multiplication tables? Here I was, an eight year old girl, my boundaries were violated, a boy had made a decision to violate my body without my consent, and the message was planted, internalized, firmly rooted in my subconscious that he was just a boy and didn’t know better. What if the school administrators had given him firm consequences and communicated that this was abusive behavior? What if his parents started the conversations at this age about appropriate behavior and how to respect a girl’s boundaries? Maybe by the time he was in 6th grade he would think twice before snapping a girl’s bra strap. Maybe by 8th grade he would choose not to slap a girl’s butt. Maybe by the time he was in 10th grade, he would choose not to ask a girl to send him nude photos. Maybe by the time he was at a college frat party, he would know that he needed a girl’s consent for any physical contact.

As for my family, for my three daughters, I will teach them that they get to decide what is acceptable behavior for them. They get to decide whether or not a boy’s comments to them are disrespectful or even abusive. They get to decide on the boundaries for their bodies. They will learn how to speak up and that they don’t have to settle for the “boys will be boys” rhetoric and standards. They shouldn’t have to make choices everyday to stay safe simply because our society has allowed for boys to have lower standards for their behavior or because our society has taught girls that they are somehow at fault for it. As a mother of three daughters, I am starting at home.

This is all about boundaries. Teach your girls to have them, to stand up for them, to insist on them. Teach your boys to respect them.

Presenting Loving Lives to Angela Duckworth’s Lab at UPenn

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From left to right: Caitlin Baxter, Maureen Haffey, Madelyn Williams, Lauren Gempp, Michelle Keefe, Christine Campbell, Mike McAteer, Mike Sheehan, and Ryan Shelton

Our Loving Lives team of 4 students and 5 teachers travelled to the University of Pennsylvania share our story with Angela Duckworth and the Character Lab. While all the teachers did a great job, our students stole the show by sharing their personal stories through powerful speeches (copied below). As a high school teacher, I never guessed I would be leading a presentation at UPenn and receiving compliments from someone like Angela Duckworth while trying to help my community tackle difficult issues like teen suicide and school shootings, but here I am, and I can’t wait to discover the next chapter of our journey.

You can find the presentation slides here. Student speeches are below.

Lauren Gempp – Seeing the Loving Lives presentation for the first time (slide 12)

This idea was introduced to us in the fall of our Junior year. The day of the first presentation, I sat in the classroom ready to complete a physics lab and learn more formulas. I had upcoming tests and quizzes on my mind, in other words, the usual Junior year stress. As you can see on this slide, “Before” the presentation I was distracted by many obligations- academics, volunteering, sports practices, and time for friends.

Then, Mr. Shelton began this presentation. First, I realized how my goals and many of those around me were in line with the left. Get good grades, find a great job, build a good resume. I was so surprised to hear a teacher point these out and show that everyone was similar in this sense. Usually, students today are used to hearing about the importance of high success academically and in extra curriculars, so I was trying to process what he was pointing out.

As he continued, the right side goals were goals that many of us in the classroom WANTED to have. Do your best, but accept yourself, help society not just yourself. Throughout this, my mind was hearing what he was saying, yet I was still thinking about my upcoming obligations. By the end, I felt confused- a teacher telling us that we don’t need the best grades or the greatest job. But it was also a relief, as seen in the last image on the slide. I can do my best and accept that even if it isn’t the best of the group, and be content with whatever the results may be. I should always lift those around me up. His presentation showed us that a happy life doesn’t need to include being rich and winning awards. You can be the best possible version of yourself, help those around you and still be successful and happy in a different way. We need to put standards aside and work as a cohesive group to better the world around us. If people are smarter, more talented, or more experienced than you, you must take it and learn from it.

This took me time to comprehend and I am still understanding it fully now. But the main things taken away from this first presentation was that one’s goals do not have to be “me focused” to be successful.

Maureen Haffey – Navigating the Parkland school shooting together (slide 19)

When hearing about school shootings, we as students often feel afraid and helpless, and it can feel as if we have no one to talk to.

Our talks about the Parkland shooting that we had during school really helped students to clear their minds and talk about the fears that come with hearing about school shootings.

For me personally, only 2 of my teachers allowed us to openly talk with them about the shooting. I know many students wished more teachers (and other adults in general) talked to us about these tragedies because talking about these things with adults that we trust gives us a sense of security and we feel less alone.

We also talked about how we always feel as if we “live in a bubble” and nothing will happen to us or our school, but we really can’t control what happens, so it’s very possible it could happen to us.

The social contract helped us to focus our energy more on having an open mind and thinking about a positive future, rather than living in fear that something dangerous could happen to us or our school.

Seeing that 20% of faculty signed the contract definitely made students feel more confident about it, because although not all teachers will openly talk about these difficult topics, it shows that they really do support us and want to lessen our fears in order to help us make a more positive future.

I know students attitudes about school shootings and just tragedies in general definitely changed after the social contract and our discussions, and they were more focused on helping create a positive future. Now, after all the talks we’ve had, we are ready to take on any challenges we may encounter, and we know we are not alone while facing them because we have the support of not only our peers but the adults in our lives as well.

Madelyn Williams – Integrating meditation into the classroom (slide 23)

Good Afternoon everyone. My name is Madelyn Williams and I was a student in Mr. Shelton’s Physics class this past school year so I was involved in his Loving Lives meditation study.

Meditation gave our students an outlet to find themselves, become grounded, and regroup for the tasks ahead. We had discussions about our feelings on current events and how things beyond our control, like the Parkland shooting and our current political state, were in a way controlling us and making us feel unsafe, confused, paranoid, or even scared. By implementing meditation techniques throughout the year and having open discussions, our class reported feeling much more aware and in touch with ourselves, more powerful, and in control. We reported less stress and more contentment with our course work and our life outside of school. Meditation created a class environment where we all felt safe and supported when bringing up such hot button issues. These in class discussions really allowed us to reveal our true views and concerns without judgement or reprisal. As a representation of our student body, I feel that implementing meditation techniques to encourage free thinking and dialogue between all kinds of people can not only help pave a new path towards compromise and clear a troubled mind, but can also create a focused and relaxed environment for everyone to excel and be their best. For me personally, my meditation experience started a few years before this class, but regularly meditating with a group of people was definitely an empowering experience, unlike what I was used to before. But not only was it empowering, it also gave our girls the opportunity to feel in control and gave them a chance to really engage in current events on their own so they didn’t feel so helpless. It gave our students the level-headedness and clear mindedness to really delve deep into our society’s issues and discuss them as a class in a way we wouldn’t be able to in a class that didn’t implement these meditation techniques. Thank you.

Caitlin Baxter – Seeing parents, teachers, and students supporting Loving Lives (slide 35)

Growing up, I was the girl who had to get straight As, had to make no mistakes in sports, had to be perfect. Success, in my head, was defined by the previously discussed individual goals. I constantly placed this pressure on myself as I did not want to disappoint my parents, who sacrifice so much for me. I would compare myself to my siblings and I knew my grades had to stay up to remain eligible for athletics. When Mr. Shelton first started talking to us about Loving Lives, I was hesitant to buy in. It did not seem feasible that others would get on board. Influenced by the people in my life and some movies, I noticed the focus on individual goals, from getting into the great college to the perfect happily ever after. However, as he continued to show his passion for creating this new mindset, I started to develop a belief that it was possible. Seeing the statistics come back from the surveys increased my hopes too. I noticed that the majority of all students, teachers, and parents wanted to see a focus on community goals rather than individual goals, the opposite of what I had always felt. During this past school year, my parents noticed me getting really overwhelmed and stressed managing school, sports, and a social life. It was very interesting to me because the first thing that they told me was that my health and overall happiness triumphs over any of the previous things. I had just heard Mr. Shelton’s talk and here my parents were reiterating what he had said, without me ever bringing it up. They have also mentioned that I don’t need to be the smartest or be making the most money to be successful. They preached that as long as I was doing something that made me happy and being a civil, good person, I was a success. It relieved a lot of stress and pressure knowing that my parents were more focused on me gaining experience and retaining useful information rather than just a grade. This is not something that can shift overnight, but it is slowly becoming easier for me to think about community centered goals. As the Loving Lives message spreads, hopefully, little by little, more people will incorporate community goals into their lives allowing them to decrease stress and increase confidence.

You Have Gifts To Share – Share Them Confidently

Schools appropriately recognize individuals for standing head and shoulders above their classmates at various award ceremonies throughout the year. Unfortunately, many students have internalized that if they are unable to achieve at an elite level, they must be disappointments to the community and unworthy of recognition. Fear of letting people down brings stress and anxiety into students’ lives because they feel the world is demanding that they achieve things beyond their capability. This is an opportunity to fix this misunderstanding.

Every individual has unique gifts that must be encouraged and celebrated by their community. Students don’t need a plaque, trophy, or certificate to be acknowledged for their talents, but they do require support and encouragement from peers, teachers, and parents to cultivate their passions, to mature their unique abilities, and to shine their light on the world. While walking in front of a crowd to receive an award is meaningful, being appreciated for who you are by the people closest to you is the most precious gift a person can receive.

Technology is causing life to speed up and our focus to rarely look more than a few days into the future. We seek the instant gratification of a handful of likes on our social media accounts, but the satisfaction is fleeting, and the thirst for contentment returns quickly. We must take time to step back periodically and reflect upon what we’re doing. It doesn’t take long to remember that sustained happiness comes from a deeper connection to yourself and the people in your life than the Internet can provide. We must sit face to face and have meaningful heartfelt conversations about the challenges in our lives. We must help one another put our daily struggles into context so we don’t overreact to minor disappointments. We must take time to share the simple joys that we experience every day. While these conversations may feel like obstacles to the completion of your daily tasks, they are actually the foundation for lasting relationships that will support you throughout your life and be valued far more than any trophy.

Life is long and will be full of ups and downs. Success is not the product of perfectly executing every task set in front of you, as this is impossible. Instead, success demands courage and commitment to your goals and dreams even after you’ve been knocked down a hundred times. Milestones like getting your driver’s license, getting accepted into college, building a successful career, and starting a family will automatically arrive in your life at the appropriate time if you remember to develop and nurture high quality relationships along the way because those people will keep picking you up and inspiring you to keep going. We don’t want you to measure your value by the accomplishments you can write on a piece of paper, but by the positive impact you have on the people in your life. If you’re able to focus on these goals, regardless of the outcomes, you are a success in our eyes.

Success and the Loving Life

In order to consider teaching our students the importance of building loving, fulfilling lives, I keep coming back to only one solution: we must help them to rewrite their definition of success.

The Oxford Dictionary defines success as the following:

  • The accomplishment of an aim or purpose
  • The attainment of fame, wealth, or social status
  • A person or thing that achieves desired aims or attains fame, wealth, etc.

 I do believe that most children have also internalized this definition of success. It seems that success in the eyes of a teenager has a dollar amount attached to it. I have even heard some students say that even though they would enjoy pursuing a career in education, they do not believe that a teacher is successful because of the salary. Their actions and pursuits indicate that success in life is a measure of financial, individualistic, and materialistic achievements. If we claim to be modeling our lives as Christians, is this the message we should be sending to our children? How do we think Jesus would define a successful life?

When I was a teenager, I must admit that my views of success were not entirely different. I wanted to be wealthy and only considered fields of study that were capable of delivering that result. Chasing that narrow-minded, materialistic ideal, I do believe, greatly contributed to my battle with anxiety and depression. Something in my brain was screaming at me because I was ignoring my gifts, my passions, and my values.

In that respect, how should we define success and how should we better steer our children toward that new enlightened ideal? I have discovered that success, for me, means finding fulfillment in the work that I am doing. When I hear that I am making a difference in the lives of the students I am teaching, that means so much more to me than any salary ever could. I have had the experience of working in the pharmaceutical industry, while earning a high salary with generous benefits and quarterly bonuses, but I was feeling empty and lost and was not being true to myself. I wasn’t helping people. In fact, I often felt I was being asked to do just the opposite to increase the company’s market share, but I was unwilling to continue doing it. I made a career change with a baby at home, and another on the way, and it was the best decision I have ever made. I see, everyday, the difference that I am making with my students. I love going to work everyday, as I am fueling my passions and serving the needs of others more so than my own. I wake up excited to see what each day will bring. I also insist on work life balance and finding time to pursue the hobbies that bring me peace. I say no when I need to and don’t feel guilty, most of the time anyway. I remind myself daily of my priorities and choose to spend my energy on those priorities, and make sure my children see me doing it.

Ultimately, I feel we are robbing our students of the experience of loving their career and personal life by continuing to demonstrate that wealth and achievement are the only definition of a successful life. Is a man successful if he becomes a billionaire by taking advantage of vulnerable or sick people, or if he steps on the less fortunate to get to that position? Is a woman successful if she gives her all to a career, but has no time for her family or an overall well-balanced life, or even sacrifices her health in the process? I want my children to find fulfillment in life, whether through a career they love, through service and charity work, through prioritizing family time, or even through their hobbies and down time. Success to me means finding the activities that fuel your passions and building your life goals around those passions. Success means using your passions and gifts to help others and to contribute to the common good of our society. Success means embracing mistakes and failures and learning from them to grow, to strive for personal growth that is unique to you and your talents and goals. Success is learning when we need to readjust our goals and reevaluating that to which we devote most of our time and energy. Success is knowing when to say no to something that takes energy away from the pursuit of your passions or your sense of peace. Sometimes anxiety is a sign that God is speaking to us, trying to make us listen and hear from Him why we are on this Earth and what good we can do with the gifts we are given. Success is so much more than a salary or a job title.

As parents and educators, we must be better models of this more loving, more community-focused idea of success. Our Christian values lead us to a life in pursuit of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I see no mention of wealth, impressive job title, high grades, or even acceptance to Harvard. When we congratulate our children for a job well done, what are we rewarding? We usually celebrate test scores, report cards, athletic achievement, etc. What if we had more awards ceremonies at our schools that simply recognize service to others? What if we treated our children to a fancy dinner for being kind to a friend or for helping out around the house? What if we simply reconsider the questions we ask our children at the end of their school day? The first thing I ask my children at the end of each school day is; tell me one nice thing you did for someone today, and then I give them an example from my day. I hope this helps to model for them my priorities and values, and helps them see what I love most about them. My goal is to raise strong, kind, compassionate human beings. I think we could use more of those in our world.

So, I am asking for your help in changing the narrow-minded definition of success for our children and modeling it through our own words and actions. If our ultimate goal as parents and teachers is for our children and students to live loving, fulfilling lives, we need to refocus their priorities, and to teach them that money cannot buy a happy life. Work ethic is important, don’t get me wrong, but hard work is meaningless and just plain hard if you are working toward the wrong goal. Make those goals meaningful and loving and fulfilling and we can change the world!!

Presenting at HOBY Community Leadership Conference

Today I am presenting to 60 high school freshmen from approximately 20 schools near Wilmington, DE at the HOBY Community Leadership Conference. HOBY’s mission is, “To inspire and develop our global community of youth and volunteers to a life dedicated to leadership, service, and innovation.” I am extremely excited for this opportunity to share my thoughts and ideas, and potentially spread the Loving Lives model beyond the walls of Padua Academy.

For those who have been following along, I will be presenting an updated version of my Loving Lives talk. This new version includes new survey data from parents and students with several intriguing conclusions. Contrary to student and teacher expectations, parents would like their teenagers to pursue the goals introduced by Loving Lives, and a student survey given 6 months after the original talk suggests that Loving Lives increased academic achievement while reducing stress and anxiety.

The slides for the new talk can be found here. If you just heard the talk, please rate it or leave a comment to let everyone know how you liked it!

Relationships of Truth Not Perception

Nothing feels better than being accepted for who you are at the deepest levels of your truth. While it’s easy for anyone to appreciate our strengths, individuals who still accept and love us after understanding our darkest moments and witnessing our most hidden weakness are the people we acknowledge as our closest friends. As humans, social connections are pivotal to our happiness. We dress, talk, and act like the people around us because we want to fit in. We often straddle the line of being who we are and being who others want us to be without knowing which parts of us are which. It’s just as easy to get lost in abundant compliments as no compliments at all. We’re continuously searching for our authentic truth beneath the facade of superficiality we present to the world.

As I look out into this world, my stomach turns from the discrepancy between our perceived blissful surface reality and our ominous foundations we are secretly destroying. We pretend that our lives are full of joyful accomplishments while we sulk in our worries for the future. We’re afraid to say what we really feel because we don’t want to be ostracized from our social communities. We spend every waking hour trying to follow the script that was given to us without knowing how the story ends or what we’re trying to accomplish along the way. We’re afraid to question our true intentions because we doubt that people would still like us if they really knew who we were.

Well I have a secret for you: everyone is lonely sometimes, everyone has flaws, and we’re all different. True friends are the people who are willing to listen to your authentic truth and support you no matter what challenges you are facing in your life. These true friends are the ones you will still be in contact with you 5, 10, even 20 years down the road. Those friends who expect you to always be perfect will disappear from your life as soon as difficult struggles appear on your timeline. Struggles are not bad fortune. Struggles are opportunities to grow as an individual and to grow in your relationships. Every life is full of ups and downs. Don’t hide from your struggles, and don’t hide your struggles from your true friends. And when a friend approaches you to discuss a difficult topic, sit with them, hold them, and love them with your whole heart. If you can do that, I promise that they will be there for you when you need them down the road. There are many good people in this world. If one person lets you down, let it go and move on. Keep searching. Keep exploring. Keep living, no matter what.

We are facing many real challenges in our world today. Let’s stop pretending that they don’t exist. Instead, let’s use these challenges as opportunities to help our friendships grow to deeper levels. Let’s discuss the real struggles in our world openly and honestly, and maybe we will be able to overcome these obstacles together. We will make mistakes, and some people will call these mistakes failures, but who cares what they think? We know that the only way through this mess is forward so let’s go! Be real, be honest, and be loving, and let’s see if we can leave a positive mark on this world together.

Do Our Kids Know It’s Okay to Not be Okay?

Last August, I read Kate Fagan’s What Made Maddy Run, and was immediately overcome with emotion. Fagan describes Madison Holleran as the All-American teenage girl, the girl every other girl wants to be. Maddy is beautiful and popular, a straight-A student, and a state champion soccer player and track star. She is the epitome of what every teenage girl desires to be. Madison was an active Instagram user, consistently posting photos of her seemingly perfect life. In fact she was so good at portraying herself as the perfect, high-achieving, popular teenager, it seemed her family and her closest friends had no idea just how badly she was struggling. Within months of starting her college career at the University of Pennsylvania, as a Division 1 cross country and track athlete, she walked up the steps of a nine story parking garage in downtown Philadelphia, and jumped, taking her life at the age of nineteen.

I was haunted by Maddy’s story for many reasons, but probably the biggest reason was that I saw myself at the same age. In the summer before my senior year of high school, I started what would be a 7-year battle with anxiety, depression, and severe anorexia. I had always been a high achieving kid. I was a straight-A student and I excelled athletically, receiving multiple Division 1 scholarships to play softball. However, looking back, I never felt comfortable in my own skin, but I hid it well. I did eventually recover, but had spent most of those years wishing I were not alive. I can’t fully explain why my story has a different ending than Maddy’s, but that’s the thing about mental illness. Each story charts its own course.

Maddy’s story also made me think of my students. I teach Chemistry at an all-girls Catholic high school, and many of our students have an intense desire, almost an innate need, to achieve and succeed. Many of our high-achieving students are terrified of making mistakes and failing. A high stress approach to education is the status quo, and a high GPA and acceptance at a top-rated college are the ultimate goals.

My concern is whether or not we are teaching our children the value of learning from mistakes and failure. My most important life lessons were learned from picking myself back up after getting knocked down a few times and coming back even stronger. Life doesn’t always follow that ideal path that we hope for, and it is crucial to know that those plans can be recalibrated and that perhaps a different path in life is, in fact, our destiny, or God’s plan even. Many kids follow a particular path because of appearances and expectations from others. Maddy, for instance, thought her family and friends expected her to attend an Ivy League school and to play a Division 1 sport, but she was miserable and afraid to let anyone down. She spent her energy trying to maintain her image rather than directing her energy to making the necessary changes to get healthy.

How can we let our kids know that it is okay, even important, to fail? How can we make sure that our children know that it is okay to not be okay? We should do a better job of educating children on the signs of anxiety and depression and letting them know that it is okay to ask for help and how to ask for help.

In the age of social media, appearance is everything to kids. Even adults fall victim to comparing our own lives to what we envision others’ lives to be, simply based on what we see and read on Facebook and Instagram. What we see is only the highlights reel and not a true representation of real life. We need to make sure our kids understand this and find ways to be more real with their friends and family. As the adults in their lives, we need to model this and talk to them about it. Otherwise, they will grow up to believe that asking for help when they need it is a sign of weakness and a blemish on that image they have worked so hard to craft. Talk about your bad days. Encourage them to share the good AND the bad. That’s what makes us human. That’s what makes us “us”. Perfect is unrealistic and, frankly, pretty boring. Our flaws and quirks and idiosyncrasies make us interesting and relatable.

The feeling that I remember most from my darkest days when I was struggling in my late teens and twenties was feeling completely alone. I thought for sure that no one around me could possibly be feeling so incredibly depressed. I was certain that my peers thought that I was a total freak. What I needed so badly to hear was that others had struggled with depression or anxiety or anorexia, and that it was okay to ask for help and that I could and would get better. I needed to hear that this was not how I would feel for the rest of my life. I think Maddy needed to hear this as well. This is why I make sure to share my story as an adult and let my children and my students know that mental illness is more common than they think and that it is okay to let someone know if they are struggling. The story of Madison Holleran was a wake-up call for me, as a mother and an educator. I will forever carry Maddy’s story in my heart, in the hopes that both of our stories can help those who are struggling to realize that they are not alone, that recovery is possible, and that life after recovery is so incredibly beautiful and worth the fight.

Children Are Calling For Help – We Need To Hear Them

It’s time to stop pretending that everything is okay. We’re trying to find solutions to specific issues like teen suicide and school shooting, but when are we going to realize that these are simply symptoms of much deeper problems. Our problem isn’t that a small number of children are struggling to cope with life in today’s world. The problem is most children are struggling to cope with life, and for a few, the only solution they can see to escape the suffering is to kill themselves and others. For a child to take such an extreme action, they must have built up a tremendous amount of anger and fear over many years of their short lives, and we’re letting it happen.

I’m tired of people justifying horrible societal norms in the name of some virtuous agenda. If you are attacking another person, tearing down someone’s beliefs, or using your platform as justification to refuse to listen, you are adding to the problem. If you are so busy that you don’t have time to question the long term outcomes of your actions, you are adding to the problem. If you are unable to hear the children all across our country currently screaming for help, you are adding to the problem.

We need to stop. The way we’re currently living our lives is not working. We need to take a step back and ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in. We need to do better than choosing one side of a political debate and fighting for it. We need to realize that to make any improvements in this world, we need to work together on some common goals. Children across this country are screaming for help. Just because they don’t know the solutions to our problems doesn’t mean they can’t help us understand what the problems are.

Jesus Christ taught us how to bring love and compassion into moments of grief, division, and despair. He taught us how to come together for the betterment of the whole community. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t simply mean attending church every Sunday. Following Jesus requires that we develop the qualities he modelled for us within our own lives. He taught us that no matter how dark the world around us, love can guide us to the light. It’s time to reject the rules that are guiding us into darkness so we can come together and write new rules that will guide us into the light. Let us hear the children across this country that are screaming for our help, and come together to create a future we can all believe in.

Social Contract Following Parkland

In February and March, the world started to unravel again. 14 students and 3 teachers were shot in Parkland, FL. Two teenagers from Wilmington, DE died, one by suicide. Another school shooting occurred 150 miles from my school. While I didn’t have answers for how to help students navigate these tragedies, I tried to listen and understand. Eventually I encouraged the students to stand together on the platforms of love and unity by writing the below social contract. 263 of our students (40% of all students) signed this contract along with teachers and administrators. It seemed to help. Over the next 2 weeks I will share some letter I wrote to help me process all of these difficult events that lead to the creation of The Loving Lives Revolution.

Social Contract:

While the Parkland shooting is frightening and devastating, I refuse to allow my life to be overpowered by fear, anger, or helplessness. I understand that there are many factors in this world that I cannot control, but I will not let these outside factors define what my life is about. When I am scared, I will reach out to friends, family, and other adults who can support me to borrow their courage to face my daily challenges with an open heart and open mind. When I am strong, I will provide support and friendship for anyone who needs it. When confronted by adversity, I will join hands with others in my community to face these difficulties together. When a community member offers an opposing opinion from my own, I will listen with an open mind, share based on my best understanding, and unite over the common goal of love. I know that we can build a healthy and inspiring future for our community if we work together. Every day, I will invest my energy into creating a positive future full of optimism, compassion, and innovation for the benefit of all people.

Working Together to Find Solutions

While my students and I celebrate small successes in building a loving classroom environment, we know that the world outside is getting worse. The world is full of anger, fear, divisiveness, and blame, and these realities are leading us in the wrong direction. We need to come together, listen to one another, and discover new solutions together. Instead of going in circles by recycling the same strategies and proposals, let’s work together to invent new comprehensive solutions. Let’s try many different solutions, learn from our mistakes, and modify our plans to be more effective so we can reach every individual in our communities. Let’s unite on the common goal of building safe and hopeful communities centered on truth and love.

I would like this blog to be a think tank with students, parents, and teachers sharing their thoughts and feelings, proposing possible solutions, and implementing action plans together. Let’s look more deeply at our goals, discuss possible paths for achieving those goals, then follow through on those plans. The biggest obstacle is that we must construct proposals that promote the best interests of all parties. We must be willing to sacrifice personal gain for the wellbeing of the whole. We must have faith that asking hard questions with a loving heart will result in a positive outcome. We must bring hope, compassion, and trust back into our communities.

Next week I hope to start posting input from other people in our community. If you have something you would like to share, please email it to me at ryanshelton7@yahoo.com and I will post them in the order they are received. I look forward to a positive, healthy, and constructive conversation.

Uniting a Community

A school community consists of 4 major groups: students, teachers, administrators, and parents. After the faculty meeting, Loving Lives had the support teachers, administrators, and about 10% of the students. So how could we share this message with the entire student population and their parents? Would the students want to take ownership of this message? We had a big brainstorming session and my students decided that they wanted to make a video. Their 2 minute video was posted on the high school Facebook page in December.

Considering our school only has 650 students, we were excited to see 5 times that many views of the video meaning that most of the students, many parents, and many beyond the school community took the time to watch the video. For a few days there was a buzz about the video within our school. Our Loving Lives message was out there, but how could we put it into practice?

Do Other Adults Support Loving Lives?

Before presenting Loving Lives to my students, I felt isolated in my thoughts. With the support of my students, the teenage rebel in me was inspired. As a teenager, I always felt like it was me versus the world. With a privileged upbringing, this wasn’t actually the case, but I always found the defiance to be kind of fun. So here I was again, plotting ways to overthrow the system when a younger (but more mature) teacher asked if I had thought about sharing the presentation with Administration. In my rebel head, I thought, “The Administration will never go for this. I’ve got to sneak up on them and trick them into supporting this. There’s no way I could just ask them for their support.” With a good nights sleep, I remembered that I’m 36, not 16, so I followed my friend’s advice, and shared the slides with administration.

I was simply asking permission to share the slides in the faculty newsletter, but the administrators liked my slides so much that they created a faculty meeting the following week (which never happens) so I could present to a live audience. Suddenly I felt nervous; Was I doomed to fail because teachers were being asked to stay after school for some lame faculty meeting? Teachers are free to leave school at 3pm, so I expected most teachers to rush for the door as quickly as possible after my presentation (which ended at 3:05pm), but almost everyone stayed engaging in Q and A and small group discussion until 3:45 and beyond. I couldn’t believe it! I must have really been on to something my community needed. But how could I keep up the momentum?

The slides for the faculty meeting are below. I started by giving the same presentation that I gave to the students, followed by some student survey results and some content specifically for the teachers. I also added some teacher survey results collected following the meeting.

Teacher Presentation Slides

 

A Call For Action

One week in October of 2017, a student at a local school committed suicide and a man responsible for a shooting a few hours south of my school was on the run somewhere nearby causing a school lockdown. Unlike 2015, this time I chose to act. I don’t know how to stop depression or prevent shootings, but my brain doesn’t work that way. Instead of considering how to stop bad things, I start pondering how to create good things. I figure out how to get kids to think so we can develop solutions together. If individuals and communities are invested in creating positive change, can there be any time left for anger, worry, fear, stress, depression, or violence?

So the night after the lockdown, I nervously prepared a presentation to share with my physics students the next morning. I guessed at their life goals and questioned the outcomes of these goals. I shared how I would reframe these goals, and encouraged students to pursue my positive vision for the future. I’m 36 years old and my students are 16 and 17, so I was pretty sure my presentation would crash and burn. Their world’s are so different from mine or the one I grew up in, so how could I possibly share a personal perspective following a teen suicide and local shooting that struck a positive cord with my students?

While I anticipated failure, I knew that I had to try something, so I swung for the fences, and it worked! Each of my 4 classes received it slightly differently, but all the responses were very positive. My students were extremely thankful that I was willing to talk to them about these real life struggles. They appreciated that I was willing to take a step back and question what was causing teens to feel unhappy. They were thrilled that I was willing to put their mental wellbeing ahead of their course work, at least for one day. Most importantly, my students learned that I care about them and that I want to help. This was a start. Click the link below to see my presentation.

Presentation Link

The Loving Lives Story Begins in 2015

2.5 years ago, one of my high school students was impacted by a suicide in her family. I was a first year teacher, and I didn’t know what to say or do to support her. The first time I had her in class after the event I asked her how she was doing, she said she was okay, and I nodded in support. Then I thought that the best thing I could do was to help her return to her normal routines. I tried to pretend like nothing was wrong, and that the best path forward was to continue with the school curriculum. What else could I do?

A week later I was talking to a fellow teacher who also had this student, and I asked her opinion of how the student was doing. This teacher had a better relationship with the student, and had learned that none of the student’s teachers were talking to her about it. It seems like we all had come to the same conclusion; It was not our place to get involved with such a personal matter. But then I started to wonder, who was helping this student navigate this difficult time? By not talking to her, were we sending the message that students needed to figure out how to navigate these situations on their own? Was this in the best interest of the students?

This episode has stuck with me over the years. I concluded that I would not force any of my future students to face such a difficult time alone again. I didn’t know what I was supposed to say or if there was a “correct” way to support a grieving student, but if a similar situation ever presented itself, I needed to try to help. I could let the student know they were not alone. I could listen patiently and peacefully as they shared what was on their mind. I could be honest. After this event in 2015, I knew I had failed to meet this challenge successfully. The next time, I vowed that I would try harder. Unfortunately, this was not a one time event.