The Adult Who Should Have Been There for Me

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.

My sister's artistic rendition of my brother

My sister’s artistic rendition of my brother

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.

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17 thoughts on “The Adult Who Should Have Been There for Me

  1. Wow, this is so powerful. I was riveted and moved by your story. And not only that, I am enormously challenged. I teach in a Christian school, and my mind was replaying situations that maybe I missed in the past 12 years. I know I have definitely reached out to kids, but I am sure there were some I didn’t – and the signs were there. We teachers have all the (bad) excuses in the world, but in a Christian school especially, THAT is why we are there. That’s what makes our profession different than a public school teacher. We’ve already shown we aren’t there for the money. But we are there because we CAN pull a kid aside and pray with them and support and get involved.

    Thank you for sharing this post. I am definitely going to start school this September with new ‘eyes’ – and drop the excuses. It is hard, even for teachers, to step out of their comfort zone and approach a kid in a situation that feels awkward or beyond our skill set. But I’m firm on this – THAT is why we are there.

    Many thanks.

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    • Thank you. As a teacher myself now, I can easily see how my teachers behaved as they did. It’s hard to know the right moment to intervene and what to say when we see students struggling with hard times. But I’ve found that even just a small comment here or there has made a difference to some of my students. Sometimes just knowing that someone notices and cares enough to say something is enough.

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  2. Christine–what you have done–in an incredibly comprehensive and honest way– is to ask the questions that will haunt good teachers–but will also help remind teachers how much they are needed. It is compassion and care that you are talking about and no teacher or parent or school counselor or youth minister can read your story and not feel convicted by what you say.

    But it is also a great service that you have potentially done to those helping professionals. In asking the questions: why didn’t anyone ask how I (not just my brother or my family) was doing? why didn’t someone ask why I was crying or hurting myself? Why didn’t anyone ask why I seemed lost or in a daze–in asking these questions, you are presenting teachers and counselors and youth ministers with a clear reminder of who they are; a clear call to action–a call to pay attention–to ask questions–to not assume anything.

    When most people are confronted with grief, they find themselves in a quandary. What they want is to make the grief go away–by walking away from it or trying to joke about it–or even mocking it. And why is that? Perhaps it is because we are all carriers of grief; many times we can hardly face our own troubles and griefs, and when we see grief in other people it makes us profoundly uncomfortable–we want to make it go away at all costs. But that is the average person, of course, we like to say. Teachers and counselors are trained to see these things and to know how to intervene.

    Perhaps that is the greatest lesson for those of us who are teachers or counselors. A reminder that we are by no means immune from this “disinclination to enter into someone else’s grief”. It may even be worse than that–and I hope not!–the ultimate irony that when I think it is my job to care–or that I have the quote/unquote professional credentials for caring–I am least ready to do it. As the Good Samaritan story brilliantly shows us, caring for another human being is a profoundly difficult road to take. It is the “road less travelled”–the road of being knocked off of our own track by the needs of another. When Christ talks about “giving up one’s life”, it is no small task. But as you make abundantly clear–making room for someone and their grief is a life-changing, life-saving proposition. Thank you for baring your soul.

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    • Thank you. I never really thought of my anxiety in the terms of grief, but I guess that’s what it was. This is a challenge for myself as much as any other educator. I hope I haven’t let students of my own slip by in their own grief and not realized it.

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      • Well, yes–maybe grief is too wide of a net, but often it is way bigger than we think. Any kind of loss is grief. I still remember when I lost my Joe Adcock (Milwaukee Braves) baseball card when I was about 8 years old. And I lost my beloved baseball glove three years ago in Madison, WI. I brought it to play catch with my brother who’d had a stroke–and in helping him back to the car, I forgot about the glove. And I can’t bring myself to buy a new one, because I want that one–my Harvey Haddix glove!–back. And yes, I know that sounds silly for a grown man. Silly or not–it’s human! (And I’m not as big of a baseball nut today as that paragraph would indicate.)

        Sounds like you were (without realizing it) in a sea of grief, lost home, lost friends, lost sisters–and then you need to be–I’m sure you’re asking yourself on the inside–in fear of losing someone else? And, of course, the point that you keep making over and over in your excellent blog is that high school is a time when kids are trying to be cool (you know–LOL, baby!), to fit it–to be happy–alive! Who’s got the time and the energy to face up to their losses in that whirlwind world of fast forward passion! Well, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but adolescence–high school is full of loss–as well as all the other stuff.

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  3. Christine, certainly our 1,000+ mile move that took you away from friends — both peers and adults — at the start of your junior year contributed nothing good to your final high school years, except perhaps this one thing. The friends that God brought into your life in those two years were a precious gift for which we gave thanks.

    Nonetheless, as your father, I could have, and should have, asked. Confession: We dads feel quite inept with our teen daughters.

    Hugs, Dad

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    • Thank you. Though, since I did actively try to show you and Mom that I was somehow “fine” while I was at home, I don’t know if I would have even been honest with you even if you had asked. Maybe I would have. I don’t know. But you’re right. That move brought some amazing friends into my life, and I’m also very thankful for them.

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  4. Thank you so much for posting this. I am currently about to start my senior year in high school. This past year has been incredibly difficult and I don’t think it will get much easier but reading this post took a weight off of my shoulders. It has given me a bit of confidence and I think that if I need something this year, I’ll be able to ask my teachers for help. Thank you.

    Meera

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    • I’m so glad you found my story helpful. Please do ask for help if you’re ever feeling overwhelmed. No one should have to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders by themselves. Teachers care deeply about their students, but we don’t always know when to say something when we see someone going through a hard time. I’m sure if I’d asked, though, I would have found the help I needed. I hope you do, too.

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  5. I’ve learnt something big here, and most of all is the care that you show and have for all teens out there. As a teenager too i’ll really appreciate it to have someone like you in my life especially in my hard days. You made me realize that all that is happening right now or that happened already is no one’s fault, and i don’t have to blame anyone for that.

    It is not that i don’t have anyone there for me, thing is, i don’t have any adult that i can freely talk to, relate to or seek help from. They are all way too judgmental, they just see the bad in me i guess. Now i’m kinda confused if that is it or may be i closed them out myself. i just don’t know anymore. With adults like this who care and want to help out with no judgments involved whatsoever, i believe we teens all survive through this complicated stage.

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    • I can’t speak specifically for the adults in your life, but I do know that very few teachers just see the bad in the teens in their classrooms. We wouldn’t go into a profession that places us in a room full of teens if we didn’t genuinely care for those teens in some capacity. I can’t say they’ve all had an experience like mine or know exactly how to empathize with what you’re feeling, but I can say they care. I hope you find someone to help you with what you’re going through, but even if you don’t, just know that there are some of us out there. I made it through, and you can, too.

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      • I can’t thank you enough, knowing that i’m not the only one is a great consolation. It is just so hard to keep up with everyone around you especially when they think so little of you… I believe i will survive this

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  6. Christine, I just read Steve Lund’s second post, where he said that high school is full of loss. It reminded me of something your sister said, even before the events you described in your blog occurred. She had been comparing notes with her friends, and said, “High school is hard. Our grandparents are dying; our older siblings are away at college; our fathers are going through midlife crisis; and our mothers are going through menopause.” That was true in our family in addition to the health crises that we experienced.

    I’m not sure where we got the idea in our culture that high school is supposed to be this wonderful carefree experience. I remember as a young woman that one of my roommates went into a real funk on her 20th birthday, because her teen years had been hard instead of fun. And if her teen years were hard and they were supposed to be “the most fun years of her life” what was the rest of her life going to be like?

    Your post is important to both teens and adults. For teens, it is important to know that if they are going through a really hard time, they are not alone. There are many other teens who are experiencing great difficulties, too. And adults need to be aware and even on the lookout for teenagers in need of a sympathetic ear, some moral support, and some prayers. The problem is that adults are human, too, and may be going through their own losses, which can make it harder for them to be there for others. (As I was not there for you during your brother’s health crisis. Looking back I don’t think I had the strength to give you the support you needed. And I appreciate that you were perceptive enough to know that.) But when we can, with the help of God, we should all try to reach out to those in need.

    Love, Mom

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  7. Pingback: The Hard Battle | Avoiding Neverland

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