I have a confession to make. When I strip away all my ambition and dreams of preparing teens for their futures and revamped career explorations, I need to admit that there’s another reason that drives what I do every day as a teacher. There’s a story behind why I fight so hard to connect with my students and invest everything I can in them, no matter how short a time I spend in a given school. As I look at my adolescence, I see the glaring need that no one stepped in to fill. I see the cracks I fell through, and I want stop that from happening to someone else.
I need to be careful as I write this post. I’ve had 10 years to recognize and deal with the fact that when I was 17 and 18 years old, the adults in my life failed me. I’ve come to terms with it, and I don’t blame anyone. I haven’t always been this level-headed about it, though. When I first looked back on that year with the perspective of adulthood, the realization of what had happened hit me with a wave of anger. Not at my parents, but with the teachers and other adults in my life back then. I was hurting and scared, but they did nothing to reach out. I know that in outward appearances I held the world in the palm of my hand, but when your smart, popular star of a student breaks down in tears in class on a regular basis, when she spends half a class period twisting and mangling a plastic water bottle out of recognizable shape, and finds relief in the act of banging her head against her locker? Something is wrong. Help her!
I was four years old when my little brother was born. I don’t remember life without him in it. I don’t remember a life that didn’t involve hospitals and surgeries and doctor visits and wheel chairs. His birth began a new normal for our family, but I was so young that I don’t remember any other normal. It wasn’t just the doctors’ visits and random medical knowledge we all had, or even how we steeled our stomachs and passed the bucket as he threw up at the dinner table. It was the routine nature of it all. When he needed a surgery, we had a system for that and life went on. My parents alternated nights at the hospital while my sisters and I did our schoolwork and attended our extracurriculars. Nothing in my life was ever put on hold. His condition was so pervasive that I learned to ignore it. Or at least, I pretended to learn that. I never could quite ignore it completely, but I still kept going through the motions of daily life, because that’s what we did.
All of that worked pretty well until 12th grade. I never stopped to analyze it then, but several things changed that year that made dealing with everything much more difficult. Most significantly, that year the trips to the emergency room and emergency surgeries began. For thirteen years my brother had lived with scheduled doctor’s visits and planned operations. Things were serious, but from my perspective at least, the doctors were in control. Now for the first time, I saw his condition in the light of uncertainty. All of a sudden, I didn’t know if the doctors could always help him in time or if he’d be OK. That was more frightening than anything else. On top of that, my older sisters were both away at college, so when my parents and brother were at the hospital, I came home to a silent, empty house. And when my parents were home, I saw with new eyes their growing strain and fatigue and the fear in their hearts, so I determined I would not be a burden to them. I determined to be OK for them so they wouldn’t have to worry about me, too. As a result, I was very much alone as I faced my brother’s mortality for the first time.
If I’d understood the combined impact of all those changes back then, maybe I would have asked for help, but I didn’t. Instead, I did the only thing I knew how to do. I kept going through the motions. I went to school every day, even during each of his six different surgeries and the time he lay in a drug-induced coma to save his life. Despite my anxiety, it confused me when well-meaning people offered me rides to the hospital, because I didn’t know how to break my sense of normal. The closest I came to altering my schedule was refusing to go on a science field trip that would have taken me away from my other classes, particularly AP Calculus (I was struggling to keep up with the work as it was, so I knew I couldn’t play catch-up). In thirteen years I’d never altered my daily routine for my brother’s sake. It never occurred to me that it would be OK to break it now and admit just how scared I really was.
This is where I desperately wish an adult had stepped in on my behalf. My parents were focused on keeping my brother alive. I get that. But the others? I attended a small religious school. I knew the teachers cared for me, but while they told me they were praying for my brother, they never pulled me aside to ask if I was OK or give me a chance to be weak.
It’s not like I hid anything from them, either. Since I was hiding my struggle from my parents, I cried at school instead of at home. I clenched my jaw and stared into nothingness and destroyed water bottles and punched my textbooks and banged my head into my locker. I didn’t make a scene. I was quiet, but I did do all those things. The tension, fear, hurt, and frustration were all pretty darn visible within the walls of that tiny school. My friends and classmates caught on easily enough, so why didn’t the adults?
I know they saw. That’s what frustrates me, because if they were concerned at all, they worried from a distance and never reached out to me. The Sunday morning my brother was rushed into his first emergency surgery, I attended a worship service at the church connected to my school. Two different pastors saw me there crying and individually stopped to pray with me. One was even the youth pastor who worked at the school, but he never mentioned it again. He passed me in the hallway every day, but he never once stopped to ask how things were going. My math teacher told my mom during a parent/teacher conference that I always seemed distracted when my brother was in the hospital, but she never said anything about her concern to me. I cried openly in science class, and yet my science teacher was baffled and a bit stubborn when I said I wanted out of his field trip. Another teacher saw my tears in church that Sunday, too, but he dealt with it by telling a funny story to the whole class the next day about how at first he misunderstood why I was upset and thought I was pregnant. I think he was just trying to cheer me up by making me laugh, but really?! Not one teacher ever pulled me aside to let me know they were concerned about me. No one in authority gave me permission to be weak.
I have one memory – one! – of someone seriously, openly asking about my own emotional well-being instead of my brother’s physical condition. It came from source I didn’t expect, so in my surprise I fumbled my chance. Maybe if I hadn’t, things would have gone differently that year. I don’t know and I’ll always live with that regret. But either way, that someone was a classmate, not an adult.
Maybe the blame is on me. I never asked for help. This was my normal, after all. I’d made it through thirteen years of my brother’s life without adult intervention, so why should this time be any different? But it was different. I can see that now, just like I can see what kind of emotional zombie I must have been during those weeks and months. Maybe I should give some people more credit, because I know there were adults who told me to let them know if I needed anything. They left it up to me to decide if I needed help, and I didn’t realize how messed up I really was. Besides, I always assumed they meant rides or meals or something like that. If they meant to offer emotional support, too, I didn’t get that message. I needed someone to intervene on my behalf, openly let me know that they were in my corner, and that it was OK to be upset and weak. No one did.
But then there were my friends. When the adults in my life failed me, my peers pulled through.
My girl-friends gave me a life and got me out of the house. They never fed me the false sympathy so common among others, never told me they were sure he’d be fine or that they knew how I felt. They knew better than that. One girl gave me her arm as a punching bag while another stood up to that science teacher for me and got me out of the field trip. They took me out shopping and to basketball games and for my 18th birthday. They made the laughter at the lunch table one of the brightest spots of my day and helped me forget my troubles as we talked about AP classes and theater and boys. We never really talked about what I was going through, but they understood that I needed a support system, and they gave me what they knew how to give.
And there were guys who so endearingly offered whatever support they knew how to give, too. There was the ridiculously funny boy who went on walks with me before play practice, and together we both had the freedom to drop our social masks and be serious for a while. There was the tall red-head who wrapped me up in hugs that took the weight of the world off my shoulders, and then he’d distract me with a debate and a smile. And there was that moment of compassion offered by the one basketball player who held my respect, the one guy I didn’t know well but wish I had. In eight words he became the only person to look me in the eyes and point-blank ask me if I was OK. I didn’t tell him anything because I didn’t know how, but it meant the world to me that he asked. It still does ten years later.
My classmates saw me come to school every day, even as my brother went into surgery after surgery and fought for his life. They saw my tears and tension and the days when I dropped my social persona and did little more than stare off into space. They witnessed my struggle in a way that the young underclassmen who looked up to our class and saw me as a “popular” girl couldn’t begin to understand. That spring, in a vote only open to the 30 of us in the senior class, they voted me prom queen. I’ve always believed they did that out of respect, not a sense of popularity. If I’m wrong, I don’t want to be corrected.
No, I don’t blame the adults who let me fall through the cracks. I learned my own strength that year, and I’ve drawn on that ability to keep going despite the hardships during some difficult adult years, too. But I also don’t wish that lonely struggle on anyone, especially another teen. If I can use my experience to make sure others don’t fall through the cracks, then it will be worth it. So yeah, I do want to help teens prepare for their futures, but I also want to give them what I didn’t have – a safe place to not be OK when life gets hard. I want to be equipped to reach and help, instead of worrying from a distance, like the adults in my life did. I want to be the adult who should have been there for me.