Are we limiting children based on our belief?

“Part of the problem with the word ‘disabilities’ is that it immediately suggests an inability to see or hear or walk or do other things that many of us take for granted. But what of people who can’t feel? Or talk about their feelings? Or manage their feelings in constructive ways? What of people who aren’t able to form close and strong relationships? And people who cannot find fulfillment  , or those who have lost hope, who live in disappointment and bitterness and find in life no joy, no love? These, it seems to me, are the real disabilities.” Fred Rogers,

    Working with children who have learning challenges has often resulted in my learning more about myself and my teaching. I don’t like labeling students, but I don’t mind it if it brings clarity to an issue. If a student has Autism, there can be value in telling a teacher or principal that a student has Autism. Autism is, not a reason to expect less but it is a reason to expect something different. Fear of labels often hinders the support and understanding that should be given. I call them learning challenges; disabilities, to me, overshadow the student’s abilities. 

I was a child in speech and reading support, so I have my personal perspective, including my own experiences in biases. Every child is different, and it is hard to accept that at times. My son is dyslexic; his challenges were different from my own. That is where the problems of labels come in; we expect the child to match the label, and that is not always true.

    I have shared this story to parents over the years as an illustration of what a student can do and not want they cannot do. Where do I begin? This tall, athletic, loud blond girl walked into my room. I had heard about her, but I don’t remember if I had met her or not. As the saying goes “she was a force to be reckoned with.” She was brilliant. She was obnoxious. She was loud and annoyed me and others. She took risks others were too scared to try. She was all of these things, and I loved it. On more than one occasion she stumped me with her questions. She interrupted my lesson to do it too! She was funny, intelligent, creative, did I mention she was loud?

Megan was finding herself and becoming an individual.  She would not conform to others’ viewpoints. Megan had a fantastic memory for what she had learned. I am not sure if it was a long-term memory gift because her short-term memory did not always have the same ability. If she heard something once it stuck and other times she was completely forgetful.  It is incredible how one student can tell you everything you said but forget her books in your classroom. That was Megan.

One day Megan turned in an essay which I read during my prep period. I cried when I read it. I laughed and I cried. Megan stopped in to see me and asked how she did. I asked her to sit down so I could read it to her. She was embarrassed and asked, “what’s wrong with it?” She tried to grab it from me. “Megan, it’s okay.  Just sit and listen”. I proceed to read the essay to her out loud. “The north vitamins have attacked the south vitamins in order to spread communism.” I know you think you just read a typo; however, Megan spelled Vietnamese wrong. 

She went on to explain the VC support the north vitamins and would set traps to capture and kill the south vitamins and US soldiers stationed there. She described how the US did not understand the Chinese and Vietnamese relationship. The essay explained the political impact of the war and the misconceptions of Vietnam by the US. 

Megan at first laughed, then got a little embarrassed then laughed again. This time we cried and laughed together. I assured her it was a fantastic essay. She had a clear understanding of the Vietnam War. She understood its political impact and the politics of the time. Unfortunately, this was a clear case of spell check not working for a student. Megan wanted to rip it up. Again, I told her it was an excellent essay and asked how she had learned so much about the Vietnam War? She gave her usual answer of “I don’t know.” She said she watched documentaries, heard stories, and read. It was one of the best essays from a high school student on the Vietnam War I had ever read. I was a bit taken back. I, too, was embarrassed. I sold Megan short. I had not expected her to write an essay with such depth and content.

 If I set the misspelled words aside, the piece had a thesis and was well supported by evidence and sources. I made assumptions about Megan. I knew she was bright. I knew she could debate. I did not expect her to write such an intelligent essay. I was wrong. My bias came out, and I am rather ashamed by it. My “Why” for becoming a teacher was to support the kid whom adults did not believe in; kids just like me who struggled in school. I was a teacher  because I believed all students could learn, and I loved proving people wrong when they stereotyped a student as not high achieving, or a pain. I love the “Underdog.” That day I was reminded by Megan of this simple truth.

Megan, for all of her boisterous and loud behavior, reminded me that she was why I became a teacher. Even if her viewpoint was different than mine on most occasions, her voice, and her education were why I became a teacher. I had forgotten that, or maybe I had just not applied it to her. Where is the equity in that? 

I read her essay to a few other students. I changed Vitamins to Vietnam so they would not miss her message and brilliance.  Megan’s credibility grew that day. My arrogance was put in to check. The following year when Megan was in my economics class, she did a presentation on Roth IRA’s that blew anyone’s presentation away in economics. I still regret not taking her advice on a Roth IRA’s!

Megan is incredibly successful today. Breaking barriers wherever she goes. She has been a firefighter and a journalist.  Graduated from Mills College with a BA in Political, Legal and Economic Analysis. She has traveled the world. She was a guest lecturer at Columbia University and held an internship at National Geographic Television. She is an award-winning film producer today, both teaching film and creating documentaries. Boxadora is one of her award-winning documentaries. This is just a short summary of Megan’s extensive resume!

Never underestimate a student, let them raise. Open the doors of education and get out of the way, or, better yet, escort them safely through the doors and let them take hold of what is inside. I limited Megan by believing her dyslexia defined her; I was wrong. Thankfully she did not restrict herself by my beliefs but instead rose above them. I was honored to be her teacher. She always pushes the envelope, she opens her doors for herself and closes doors on any who want to hold her back. I expected her to struggle. Instead, I should’ve expected her to learn differently. Maybe you know a Megan, or perhaps you are just like her. Keep opening doors and push through them if you have too. You are a reminder to the rest of us that we should not be closing doors on you.
I will leave you with this quote from Megan – “The human element is the most compelling thing that changes us and connects us,”  Meg

With something to think about….

Your friend, Chris

Every student has a story…

“When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

I learned years ago in my classroom that I will never know what my students are going through until I am willing to listen to them share. I also learned that when I listen every student has a story. 

Teddy Roosevelt once said people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” 

I know that is true for my students because it was true for me when I was in school.

While preparing for the new year, a Liberty High School counselor shared with me that he had placed a student in my classroom whose father had recently died of a brain aneurysm. Tears welled in my eyes because my own father died a year earlier. I was 24 at the time and knew that I would have been lost if I had been a teenager when he passed. 

Five percent of children experience the loss of a parent before their eighteenth birthday. The trauma and uncertainty that comes from this tragic loss can have a significant impact. 

That day, I stood at my door greeting my students like any day as they walked into my room for World History. I asked them to introduce themselves. Erin told me her name, and I smiled and welcomed her. I treated her like anyone else. When the opportunity presented itself, I planned to listen and share my own experience with her. Right now, Erin needed to be a regular kid. She managed to hide her sadness in those first few weeks. She had a big smile, very sweet and kind. She quickly made friends. She and a friend Austin would chat up with each other before and after class, and maybe even during. The two became close friends. Austin was very caring and a great sense of humor. Erin’s smile was as infectious as her laughter. The two of them were a bright spot in my day.
Before long, Erin shared that her dad had been a superintendent of a school district but had died of a brain aneurysm. I can remember where I was standing in the room. I tried not to cry as she told me. She was remarkably brave as she spoke about his passing. Like anyone in her situation, she appeared hurt, confused and sad. He had been her world. 

I listened attentively and asked her gentle questions, such as “What was he like?” Erin continued to talk and she shared more than I asked. I listened, nodded, maintained eye contact. 

Finally, I said, “Erin, I lost my dad a year ago. I wish I could tell you it gets better; I wish I could tell you the hurt, and the emptiness gets better, but I don’t know. You will always miss him. I am not sure if it ever gets better. Some days are better than others. I hold on to the memories I have, and I like sharing them with others.” 

We hugged, and we cried a little. She said, “I love talking about my dad, too.” I thanked her for sharing as she got up and left with Austin. I was so thankful she had been in my class.
As I watched Erin and Austin leave, I prayed I would have the right words to support her and that our connection would not be lost. I also wanted to talk more about her and not about our shared tragedy. I have found that when someone passes in your life, and someone else has a similar experience, soon that is all they talk about. As much as I love talking about my dad, I wanted Erin to experience as typical of a sophomore year as she could. When she needed to talk I would let her talk about her life — her current moments of happiness, frustrations, hopes & dreams, etc..
That year Erin worked hard; she was full of life and sadness all at the same time. She wanted to prove herself to others and herself. I suspect she wanted to make her dad proud, too, and I am sure she did. I was proud of her. She cared for others around her, and she made friends quickly. She listened to those who were hurting and encouraged them. At every opportunity, I helped her. I also didn’t lower my expectations and she never let me down. She had every right to be angry and mad, but if she was she managed it. She could have pushed others away and some days she did. Time and time again I saw her laughing and listening to friends, helping them and encouraging them. She was honoring her dad. She was stronger then she believed.
When things were dark, I watched Erin lean into Austin and other friends. I watched Austin support her. I was learning from them both that helping others helps us to heal both spiritually and emotionally. Acts of deliberate selflessness will help to improve the constant hurt we’re feeling. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, but caring and encouraging others helps us to show the legacy our departed loved ones left. Grief does not stop but it does change. Erin showed others how much she cared and reinforced what I learned when my own father died. 

As adults, we often do not know what to say to someone grieving. I would say just be there. Don’t try to point out to us stars in the darkness.
I share some convictions Robert Fulghum once pointed out:
“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death”.Robert Fulghum

“Laughter is the only cure for grief” maybe that’s why I enjoy telling stories about my dad; those joyful stories about him make me laugh. 

With something to think about

 your friend, Chris.

See this article from National Public Radio, NPR, for more information about children who have lost a parent before age 18.

Fair and Equitable: When the wrong lesson was taught.

One of the significant conflicts in school and in our homes is the balance of being fair and equitable. I have often heard over the years that a student’s punishment is not enough or it was not fair. I am a firm believer that each situation is different, and we cannot always apply rules and discipline universally. Consistency is important in disciplining, but empathy plays a role too. In order for students to learn they need to understand the value in what we are teaching them or in this case why they are being disciplined; The goal is to positively change behavior it is not always about enforcing a rule.

What is fair and equitable?

What is the goal of disciplining a student or a child?

What is the outcome?

What will the impact be?

Will it change behavior?

What caused this behavior?

Is what I am seeing caused by trauma?

These are some of the questions I would ask myself when handling discipline issues. Some could not be answered or the outcome was not always predictable. Often times when the student felt safe enough to tell their story, the answers came.

It was a warm June night; the wind just started to blow. The seniors were excited. The year was 2000, and it was graduation night. I was one of the class advisors for the Class of 2000 and many of these students I had known for four years. Walking across the basketball courts, I smiled at the students, high fived and got and gave hugs. The energy was building as we prepared to walk out to the field. Tears were already starting for some. Graduation! Such a surreal and traditional event. Years of school, classes, projects, all coming together in one night. The year 2000 made it that much more special.

I was talking to a group of boys, laughing, giving exuberant hugs. Doug, a muscular “wakeboarding” senior, had just set me down from a hug, he was emotional and trying not to show it. His friend had just died recently from a tragic accident out of state. It was an endearing moment from a young man who was a mix of emotions.  “Doug, come here,” I heard as I turned to look as I was walking away. The interim principal had walked up and wanted to talk to Doug about his cap. She proceeded to tell him to take off the symbol he had attached to it. The rule was caps and gowns could not be “decorated.” I had no time to react. Doug started yelling, he was swearing, he was mad. I quickly stood between him and the principal, and I asked him to breathe and assured him “it will be okay.” At that point, she proceeds to tell him he had a choice to follow the rules and remove the cap or not walk. Doug tried to explain it was his friend’s symbol, his brand, it represented everything about him. I began to negotiate, but my efforts fell on deaf ears. She pulled me away and told me it was a “teaching moment.” That it was necessary to enforce the rules. Doug pointed to every student whose cap was decorated. I looked at her and repeated what Doug had said. “Are you going to have all of them change their caps?” She repeated it was a “teaching moment” and that I needed to support the rules. I simply said, “all you taught Doug was you don’t care and rules are more important than his loss.” She said something else and my frustrations filled my ears instead. I then said, “I don’t know what your goal is here, but you have other students to talk to,” as I pointed at some student body officers with decorated caps.
   Doug, still upset, got back in line, and we walked to the field. Speeches were given, and diplomas were handed out. Later that night he came over to me hugged me and thanked me for not letting him punch the principal. I apologized to him and told him that I was sorry. What else could I say or do? It was an ethical dilemma for me. This person was my boss, and I thought the rule was pointless. I valued Doug, and I agreed with him. I also think he put his friend’s symbol back on his cap when she couldn’t see him or get to him.

“Stop being a critic and be a light; don’t be a judge, be a model. I think we are far too critical. I think the best way to correct behavior is to accentuate and affirm positive behavior and to ignore negative behavior. Generally speaking, there is a time to correct, of course; but my biggest advice would be,  Affirm your child.”  Sean Covey

Sean Covey is right, there is a time for correction. Graduation tonight was not that night. Doug’s pain needed to be affirmed, and consoled. Honoring someone’s feeling and showing empathy, not apathy, that’s what Doug needed that night. Sometimes you have to ask why do we have this rule? Why is it in place, who is it supporting? If it is not keeping kids safe or supporting their academics, then why do we have it? Is it equitable or is it targeting someone, not something? These are questions I find myself repeating in my current role. What behavior were we trying to change?

There was a teaching moment, but it was missed. Doug wanted to honor his friend. What he was taught was only some are allowed to break a rule. He learned those in power can exercise their power over someone else. Nothing on the cap was indecent, rude, or derogatory. At that moment I was reminded of stopping and listening to hear both sides of the story. I often told students in my office as a principal, “I will always hear you out.” An assumption was made that night that Doug was breaking a rule simply to be breaking it. That night I saw what he was doing as connecting a significant event in his life with a friendship that meant a great deal to him. I saw Doug recently, he is a police officer; he picked me up and gave me a giant hug as we reunited (I had just set off the alarm to my school). I find great irony in the fact that Doug is a police officer today enforcing rules and the interim principal today…. I have no idea. 🙂

With something to think about…..

Your Friend Chris

Becoming the new principal — Getting out of my comfort zone.

“The biggest rewards in life are found outside of your comfort zone. Live with it. Fear and risk are prerequisites if you want to enjoy a life of success and adventure.” — Jack Canfield

Have you ever had to get out of your comfort zone? Have you been at a place in life where it was time to move or move on? For me, it was leaving my hometown to become the principal of Rancho Las Positas in Livermore. I am a bit of a historian in what I call my hometown of Brentwood. I know many people in the town of Brentwood having lived here for over 40 years; I knew maybe 10 people that lived in Livermore just 20 miles away. I had made a promise in the Rancho principal interview to build relationships and get to know the community quickly. I took an idea from two educational leaders that I admire and set out to do block walks. You read that correctly, I was going to knock on the door of every student and introduce myself. I got a map and the address of every student at Rancho from the office team of Carolyn and Sheila. I sorted the list by the street. I set out a plan, made a brochure and started out to my first house. My goal was to learn more about the community and get to know families and help them get to know me. 

My heart pounded. I had always relied on the fact that I probably knew someone or knew a sibling that I went to school with when I talked to parents; something to build a connection from. In Livermore, I was most likely unknown. I knocked on my first door and no one answered, so I quickly attached a door hanger to the front doorknob, and went to the next house. In the door hanger was a letter from me introducing myself, my business card and a list of upcoming events at our school. 

I walked from home to home. After eight homes someone finally answered. The mom was confused, I tried to explain, they said “nice to meet you”, closed the door and I left. It was anticlimactic; we both were taken aback. What stranger knocks on your door? Salespeople, someone new to the community, religious groups, and trick or treaters. Right? I did not fit into those groups and it was July. I knew I had about ten seconds to make my intentions known and not sound like one of these groups. I regrouped and went to the next home. I worked on my opener. It was like a 2-minute elevator speech. I had to get across who I was, why I was knocking on their door, how they can contact me and answer any of their questions, all the while staying focused on my goal of being recognizable when they came to Rancho, build trust and form a relationship. 

Within a few homes I got into a rhythm and the conversations became less awkward. Several homes stand out. A mom answered the door, baby, on her hip and an incoming kinder peeking out from behind her leg. Mom was very kind, but clearly, this was not a good moment as the baby only stopped crying to see who this guy was at the door. I didn’t want to keep her. She was incredibly gracious, and also in shock. I thanked her and handed her the brochure and my card. She thanked me and told her daughter to “say bye to your new principal.” As I proceeded to walk back down the street to my car I heard a loud male voice say “that’s what I am talking about”. I turned not knowing what to expect. This tall young dad says it again: “that’s what I am talking about”. I answered, “how’s that?”  “My kids principal shows up at my house to introduce himself? Man, that’s just awesome.” I don’t think I could smile bigger. We talked for a while in the middle of the street. He was a nice man and it was his first time sending a child to school. They were excited and nervous. I reassured him told him to call me any time. We shook hands, and I headed off to the next house. Fast forward to the first day of school, he was my new best friend. In fact, every time I saw him we shook hands and he referred me back to that day. I distinctly remember him calling me with some concerns one day. We talked through things and he said he would trust me and the process. It all tied back to the first encounter. I never took that trust for granted or his support.

As I proceeded on my journey going from home to home, I had to keep the conversations brief if I was going to get to the 400 plus homes of the 563 students that attended Rancho. As I walked up to another house, what appeared to be a dad was on the phone as he stood in front of his garage. He was in a dress shirt and clearly it was a business call. It was awkward but I did not want to walk on; this was the last house on the street. I chose to stay and wait at the curb. He looked annoyed and clearly thought I was there to sell something. He hung up and I quickly introduced myself and explained my visit. He remained annoyed. I quickly restated who I was and why I was there. “Wait, you are who?” I smiled and restated “I am Chris Calabrese the new principal of Rancho Elementary school. I am going out introducing myself to families”. He smiled and was in a bit of shock. He asked again, “You are doing what?” We chatted a bit and, as I started to leave, he stopped me. “Wait I need to introduce you to my wife, who practically lives at Rancho.” Against my original ground rules, I went into their home and stayed for about 30 minutes. I met his wife, who was a Rancho alumnus. I chatted and heard stories about the school, concerns, and answered questions. I met their daughters and heard how awesome the school was. They were excited to meet me and I was excited to hear all about the school. We later had moments where we would disagree but at the end of the day, there was trust and a common bond. I also learned they would do anything for their school; they loved Rancho. 

There were many other funny and endearing moments throughout the block walks from the dog that would not stop licking my shoes, the dad that wanted to talk to me about the swings that had been removed two years prior to the PTA mom’s birthday party that I walked in on complete with a full bar. A few of the guests were staff members. They awkwardly pushed their drinks in front of their friends. It was really quite funny. The generosity abounded from home to home as I was offered water, soda, a beer, pizza, tamales, and tri-tip sandwiches. I think I was even offered to go for a swim in a pool. 

It became very evident to me that this little community within Livermore loved their elementary school and really would do anything to support it. Three years later that devotion and love for Rancho would be called upon as we built a running track. Along with many other projects around the school, the Rancho school community fully supported the school. Parents gave financially to support reading programs and counseling programs. They gave hundreds of volunteer hours in support of their children’s school. As a result, along with staff, parents provided services to support students’ academic, physical and social well being. 

Although it was uncomfortable to knock on doors and block walk for three weeks, I was not in my comfort zone until the conversation began. It was without a doubt one of the most rewarding events I have ever experienced in my career. The connections and relationships built would prove to be invaluable. Parents saw I truly cared. For me it filled the piece I was missing leaving my hometown; it provided me with a deep sense of community. I learned stories, I heard amazing things about the staff and the school events that were deeply rooted in tradition. Most of all, I saw the love parents had for their children and how that love represented itself in their care for their child’s education. 

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships” Stephan Covey

I tell this story to reinforce the importance of building relationships with parents. Educators make a difference in students’ lives. When we partner with parents and really get to know them the trust and relationship is so much deeper. The relationship between home and school is important and cannot be full of assumptions. As parents, we bring 13 years of a k-12 education with us every time we talk to a teacher or walk on to a school campus; our experiences color the lens we see our child’s education through. As educators, we do the same when we compare or label families and create assumptions based on our own experiences. Assumptions about parents, children or experiences cloud communication and prevent a trusting relationship. When I had a meeting with a parent and I had already been to their house, I did not have to make assumptions. I had a pretty good sense of the relationship and needs. I am not saying all educators need to do home visits. What I am saying is when we take time to get to know our student’s parents it makes for stronger relationships and stronger outcomes.  Raising kids is not only hard work it must be done thoughtfully. When we have good communication between home and school it fosters that thoughtful dialogue and it builds trust. Parents love their kids and they want the best for them. When parents knew I cared about their child they were more willing to partner with me. Home visits are fantastic, but phone calls, conferences, chats on the blacktop are all good, too. Slowing down and listening to one another about the one thing that is important to us, our students….that’s what we need.

With something to think about…

Your friend Chris

Selflessness- Being part of something larger than yourself.

“Believe in something larger than yourself… get involved in the big ideas of your time.” ~ Barbara Bush

Have you ever been a part of something that was larger than yourself,  something that started with an idea and grew into something much more? This is a theme that can be seen played out many times. That feel-good story on the five o’clock news, that becomes the viral story on social media. It becomes something special when it is a teenager,  child, or children. The circumstances involved make it seem impossible to accomplish. When students (or anyone) become involved in something that is bigger than themselves, it gives them purpose and meaning. It causes us to be grateful for what we have; we become a little less selfish. Qualities we want for our children. I hope you like inspiring stories like those. I do. I get caught up reading them, especially when they involve children or teens. To have an experience that moved us so much it moves us into action. Sarah did, and what inspired her was my son. 

Sarah was bright, deep thinking and an athletic student when I met her.  A bit of a perfectionist. I am not sure if academics came easily or if she pushed herself to always do better. She worked hard in class and outside of class. Her peers should never underestimate her tenacity; she could debate with the best in class. With a big smile, caring heart, she was kind and compassionate. She was a passionate learner.

Sarah was my student at Liberty High School, in Brentwood California. I had moved to an elementary school to become a vice principal, and Sarah would often come by to visit. Sarah rides bikes, not a mountain bike, but a road bike built for speed. This young athlete would ride her bike all around the back roads and hills of our town. We would chat about her life and her next steps in her education. Sarah would ride by our home on a regular base on one of her treks. Many times she stopped in to say hello. My son, who was about three years old at the time,  looked forward to her visits. Sarah would hold him and show him her bike or put him in the seat and pretend he was racing. It was fun to watch. They had a unique bond and friendship. Sarah was concerned about Quinn and wanted to know how he was doing. You see, Quinn had cancer. He was battling A.L.L Leukemia. Diagnosed at 2 ½, Sarah was my student at the time of his diagnosis. Many of my students and families checked in and inquired about how he was doing. Sarah came to check in with him often throughout the process of diagnosis to remission and the three years of chemotherapy. 

Curly hair Quinn with Sarah on graduation day.

Sarah came by one day and told me she would be participating in a cycling event for Teams in Training, that supported the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. She wanted to ride in honor of Quinn. I was in awe. I didn’t know what to say or really understand the magnitude of what she was saying. Sarah explained that she would be fundraising and seeking sponsors for the race. She would be riding 100 miles in Georgia in May. One hundred miles! Raising money to find a cure for Leukemia. Then she asked if she could come over and have Quinn put his hand-prints on her jersey. “So when I get tired I know he is pushing me,” Sarah said. We were overwhelmed with emotion.  It was a powerful image: a little boy with Leukemia pushing a brave, strong, confident young woman. My wife and I watched with tear-filled eyes as Quinn put his hand-prints on Sarah ’s jersey. He looked up at us with a big smile on his face as he showed us his purple paint-covered hands. 

I never asked Sarah “why”? I never asked what made her think of it. I think it was within her nature to care for others.  This question from Martin Luther King Jr. fits and Sarah had an answer. 

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?” – Martin L King

Sarah came by several times on her rides checking in with us and especially to see Quinn. Quinn was excited to hear about her “race”.  She trained for months, riding in various conditions and pushing herself. She was finding out what her body could take and how strong her mind was. She was even hit one day by a motorist, but it did not stop Sarah from training. The day before leaving for Georgia, Sarah stopped in. She went over the event with us and her schedule. We were excited for her, and Quinn was beyond excited about “Sarah’s race”. Watching her train and the regiment that she set out for herself was more than most would take on. It was inspiring. 

Sarah came home from the race and shared some of the details over the phone. We got together for dinner, and Sarah showed us pictures of her ride in Georgia. Each time I saw Quinn’s handprints on Sarah’s back in the pictures I got emotional. I was so proud of her. Cancer is overwhelming. The thought of Sarah’s sacrifice contributing to the millions needed for research is equally staggering. Like those small hands on Sarah’s back, her efforts made a difference. Quinn could never do that 100-mile race as a 3-year-old with cancer yet Sarah would not have done it without him. She became part of something larger than herself and, as a result, not only contributed to others; she contributed to her own inner strength. Imagine that, when we act upon our care for others we build up our own inner strength and our personal self-worth. 

As Sarah shared her experience with us, she very casually said: “if Quinn can endure all those shots and spinal taps over three years, I can ride my bike for 100 miles”. Wow. I was moved and touched. Quinn had no choice in his struggle against cancer. Sarah had a choice but chose to endure this challenge anyway. That’s love and putting others first. 

After three years of Chemo Quinn was finished with treatment and in remission. He is in college today and celebrating 19 years of being cancer-free (July 2019). Sarah went on to college. Today she is married, a mother of two girls and would it surprise you to learn that she is a nurse? Of course, it does not surprise you, right?

I love this quote, and I think this fits Sarah’s, honor, compassion, and ability to make a difference. 

 “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I don’t think I will ride 100 miles, but I can contribute to something that is bigger than myself. I can find a way to support my community that joins together with others to make a difference. What about you? Where can you be a part of something bigger than yourself?

With something to think about …

your friend, Chris

Mr. Nash — An unexpected mentor.

“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” — Martin Luther King

Mentorships are typically sought out. An organization, company or association sometimes offers mentors willing to invest time and energy into someone’s life. We might find a mentor at work who is willing to teach us. Many teachers become a teacher because of someone who positively impacted their lives in a classroom. Clearly, I did. Sometimes in life, a mentor comes along, and they are not from where we expected. They offer up valuable advice or provide security and safety. I have become more convinced over the years that mentoring has little to do with what the job is and more to do with character, vision, and relationships with others. The ability to work with others and emotional intelligence: these skills equate to caring, communicating, and emotional support. Mentors can come from all walks of life; I have learned not to underestimate that.

I typically write about my students and their influence on my life and lessons that can be learned. My point in writing about these experiences is to share those lessons; I hope they add value to others.  Lessons come from expected and unexpected situations or people. Adults that work in schools yet are outside of the classroom often get overlooked as educational contributors. Today I want to share the impact one of these educators had on me. I have had many amazing educators that influenced me in my life: teachers, principals, a reading specialist, and my bus driver, all contributed to my life. One unexpected mentor impacted me in a way I didn’t realize until later in life.

In second grade, every day, I saw Mr.Nash. Mr. Nash seemed to know everyone and was always there to help. When he came to the lunch tables, I sat up straighter. When he asked us to pick up lunch trays, we did it. If he saw us in the hall and asked us to take a ream of paper to our teacher, we did it. I remember one time a kid named Ray was blowing bubbles in his milk to the point of it spilling out of the carton. Mr. Nash walked up, and Ray sucked in so fast he blew milk through his nose. Mr. Nash contained his amusement while we all roared with laughter. Ray said “sorry” sheepishly. Mr. Nash simply said “Ray” in a disappointed and amused voice as he handed him a paper towel. There was no doubt Mr. Nash was respected.

Mr. Nash was always kind to students; he made us feel important. He might have raised his voice, but I never saw it or heard it. If he asked us to do something we did it. We spent every lunch with him. He smiled at us; he said —“hello,” he asked us how we were doing. One day he got a ball out of a fenced-off area and tossed it to me. Let me tell you for a short kid in second grade with a basketball, I just became an NBA player for lunch recess.

I was confused and ultimately dismayed one day when a man in a suit walked by and the kids started calling him Mr. Ibarreta. Students said “hi “to him as he walked by.  I asked Veronica sitting next to me who he was. “He is the Principal.” “Then who is Mr. Nash?” I asked. “Mr. Nash is the janitor.” Veronica asked, “why do you think we call him Mr.Nash? Nash is his first name.” “It is?” I said.

I was shocked that Mr. Nash was not the principal. There must be a mistake. No offense to Mr. Ibarreta but I didn’t remember if I had ever seen him before that day.  To me, Mr. Nash was already doing the job. I was just as dismayed that I had been calling an adult by his first name, something never allowed by my parents. It was disrespectful. It sends the wrong message to children; I remember standing there in shock.

I believed Mr. Nash was the principal because he looked after us, he was an authority figure, he was respected. Every day he was there to help us, to keep us in line with a simple “boys.” He was respectful, dignified and he was my custodian. He did more than greet us; he cared. He was my first mentor as a principal, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

As the new principal of Rancho Las Positas, on my first day, I met Don Ladnier. Mr. Ladnier had been the custodian at Rancho for several years. He greeted me warmly. I asked him what he loved about his job and what is one thing he would like to see changed. He immediately said, “the kids, that’s why we are here.” Don then proceeded to give me a list of things he would like to change! Some were reasonable and understandable; others none of us could improve. We laughed together at his list.  In the following months, I saw Mr. Ladnier interact with the kids, and I noticed he was the biggest kid of them all, always teasing and joking with the kids. In fact, a few times it got him in trouble with the yard duty because he went too far with his joking. Students at Rancho could apply to have “jobs,” and many students coveted working for Don. They helped clean up the cafeteria, wiping down tables, sweeping and putting items away. Students learned responsibility, leadership and how to serve, and they loved it. It was a privilege for them to be part of Mr. Don’s team. Don taught them and guided them in their jobs.

Something had not been sitting right with me, and I went to Don about it. I asked him, “why do the kids call you Mr. Don?” In fact, all of the staff referred to him as Don. Don said it was no big deal, that he did not mind. I respectfully suggested that the students and staff should call him “Mr. Ladnier.” After all, he was an elder on staff; he was a military veteran; he was an educator just like everyone else. At the time he was the only African American educator on campus. It was bothering me that we called him Don, and I could not let it go.  Like “Mr. Nash,” kids were calling him by his first name. He explained that he liked being called “Don or Mr. Don.” I told him my Mr. Nash story. He asked, “does that mean I am the principal then?” We laughed, and I although I said “no,” I also explained that he did have authority on this campus and was an important role model in the students’ lives. He deserved total respect. Even though no one was intentionally being rude to Mr. Landier, I told him I would like to come back from break and ask all staff and student to call him Mr. Ladnier. The funny part to me is he felt his name was hard to say. Well, with a name like Calabrese, I figured they could learn Ladnier. Mr. Ladnier gave it some thought but came back and said he preferred to go by Don. I respected his wishes and, as a compromise, I called him Mr. Ladnier or Mr. Don from there on out when talking to students. I still feel guilty about it. I know it seems like a small thing, but is it? Mr. Ladnier was a caring adult on campus that students went to for help, support, encouragement, and empathy. Mr. Ladnier did all of that willingly. Don should have gone by Mr. Ladnier. I should have introduced him that way and made it official. It was the right thing to do.

Rita Pierson says it best — “Every child deserves a champion—an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.”

Anyone can have an impact on a child’s education. Anyone! They are all our kids! Everyone can encourage a student. We can all contribute to creating a positive school culture that positively impacts a child’s education. Research shows connecting students to positive adults can increase their academic achievement and reduce discipline issues and dropouts. Also, students trust more when they see we are willing to spend time with them. Nash Gamino and Don Ladnier did just that. They gave their time to care for kids. They gave as much supervision, counseling, and encouragement as I did as a principal. They were mentors and taught children. My parents taught me my job is never over anyone else. Everyone contributes. Mr. Gamino and Mr. Ladnier added to the lives of children every day, and they contributed to my mine. For that, I am forever grateful.

“If you want to be a great leader, remember to treat all people with respect at all times. For one, because you never know when you’ll need their help. And two, because it’s a sign you respect people, which all great leaders do”.  — Simon Sinek

With something to think about….

your friend Chris

Life experience and balance.

Finding balance as a high school student can be difficult — then life hits and priorities change.

I am always struck by students who are so committed to their education, or academic progress, that they are willing to make a tremendous personal sacrifice, of time and energy. They are incredibly focused. Maybe you were you like that in school? I was just happy to have friends in class and to pass my classes. Really!

High school students came through my doors and some gave their best and others gave a little. Dedicated to academics, sports, and other activities requires a high level of commitment and passion. Tenacity, courage, grit — all great qualities to have as a Marine, a boxer or a student in high school. These are not qualities taught in schools; they come to us through events, situations, tragedies. All of which are very personal experiences.

It is through experiences that we are forged— they shape us. We have a choice to allow those experiences to define us or teach us and guide us. Students that can endure taking on studies, sports and a myriad of activities bear a lot of weight. It is a delicate balance. I often question that balance and struggle with what we ask of our students. That balance presents itself differently for different students. I saw students take on multiple AP classes, sports, leadership, band, and other college application-building activities, only to have the parent ask me —“aren’t they doing too much?” My answer was often, “yes.” I also saw students balance a heavy academic load and work part-time jobs. That balance can tip sometimes and priorities can get out of balance.

We all want children to be successful in life. The qualities that make people successful are often not learned by completing an assignment. Finishing the task, completing the journey and working towards the college degree is of higher value than the degree itself, in my opinion. The journey getting there, the bumps, the missteps, the enduring of an unexpected tragedy, they have a higher value than any assignment I ever gave.

If I were to pull all the stories together from my US History Advanced Placement classes and provide a common theme to them, it would be — going the extra mile, and raising up to expectations. It was an exceptional group of learners that year; they looked out for each other, they studied together, they laughed together and supported each other.

Genny had a smile that was larger than life itself. She was involved in nearly everything she could be: leadership, basketball, volleyball, advanced placement classes, just to name a few. She worked hard, and I don’t think it was ever easy for her, but it was apparent she was learning. She was determined to succeed in all she did.

She reminds me of this quote from the editor of the Saturday Evening Post, George Lorimer, when he said — “you’ve got to get up every morning with determination if you’re going to go to bed with satisfaction.”

I have no doubt on most nights she was tired.

It was May and the day of the USAP exam when Genny walked into my room. — “O my gosh Calabrese! I am so nervous.” She was talking fast, and I was trying to keep up. I could see she was nervous, pale, maybe even sweating. She said she had stayed up late studying. Sleep and rest help a brain to function more than the last bits of information from staying up late studying. As she talked, she mentioned not feeling well. I responded, “Genny you do not look well.” Knowing her mom was a nurse I asked her,  “Does your mom know you don’t feel well?” She passed it off as being nervous. She then said her side hurt. I began to ask more questions as I pushed more than normal because something was just not right. Genny was not herself. I remember telling her, “let’s go to the office and let’s see if we can get your temperature and call your mom.” Genny protested “but the AP exam, I cannot miss it.” I answered, “Really? You are more important than a test.” Together we walked up to the office.

Genny was admitted to a hospital that day having emergency surgery within an hour of arriving. My wife and I went to visit her the next day. She was surprised to see us, and we were grateful to see how well she was doing. Genny had a blockage that was resolved through surgery. She was disappointed she missed the test. I was relieved she was okay.

Looking at the situation from Genny’s perspective at the time, I could understand why she would be disappointed—all that work, studying, writing essays and taking tests. She didn’t have a chance to prove to herself and to others that she could do it. I agree with all of these reasons; however, now looking back on it, Genny learned perseverance. Her health was far more critical then the test and the skills learned in the class were still valuable. Unexpected events come out of nowhere, and they can knock us off our feet. It is during the storm that we show our courage and resiliency not when the wind is calm. Genny showed incredible resilience and courage. She recovered and was back at school. Her spirit was not broken, but her priorities did seem to change. Life was more precious to her and understandably so. Assignments were still important; however, Genny seemed to put herself and her relationships first. As they should be.

I wonder now how Genny sees it now?

Here is Genny’s side of the story:

Applying for colleges, playing varsity sports, leadership activities, part-time jobs, and AP classes were the focus of my junior year. The pressure was on as my friends and I floated ideas about where we wanted to go to college and what we wanted to major in. It was a year I faced personal challenges both academically and physically, and a year that forced me to grow up faster than I could have ever imagined.

Mr. Calabrese was easily the coolest teacher on campus. (this is a total exaggeration on Genny’s part) Everyone knew him, everyone loved him, and everyone wanted to be in his classes. When the opportunity presented itself to be in his USAP class junior year, it was an easy decision. I wish I could say I based my decision to be in this college-prep class because of my desire to excel in US history, but let’s be honest. A guaranteed class with my favorite teacher and a bunch of my friends…I didn’t even hesitate. Mr. Calabrese is fun, loves to tell stories, and is easy to talk to which could only mean this class would be a piece of cake, right? Boy was I wrong!

I remember the first day of class, Mr. C stood in front of the class and explained what we were all about to endure. This was a college course that will require hours of nightly homework, note taking, weekly exams, and an incredible amount of hard work. There would be no special accommodations made for those who have outside obligations; leadership responsibilities, sporting engagements, other AP classes, or anything else that may interfere with succeeding in his class. His goal was to help us to pass the test at the end of the year, but it was up to us to put in the work. I was never one to shy away from hard work, so I was up for the challenge.

For the first time, I was forced to learn how to prioritize. There were times I missed out on things with friends because I had a test the next day or sacrificed sleep because I had to work or had a game and had to read the assignment before the next day. As hard as it was, I knew I challenged myself to take this college-prep course and was warned that it wasn’t going to be easy, so I did what I needed to, to succeed. It was this class, that truly taught me life skills that I use today. I learned time management, perseverance, and goal setting. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to take that exam at the end of all of my hard work, but the lessons I learned from my experience in this class was priceless.

As Mr. Calabrese mentioned, on the day of the big test I was not myself. I remember sitting in his class on a beautiful day, shivering, becoming confused, and with a fever high enough to scare the office staff. I was sent to the emergency room and was in the operating room having surgery within the hour. I spent the next 10 days in the hospital and missed the test. Ironically, this experience in the hospital is what solidified my desire to become a nurse. I guess it is true, everything happens for a reason. It seems as if I wasn’t meant to take that test after all. Mr. and Mrs. Calabrese came to see me in the hospital and it was then that I realized these special people would become lifelong friends. The purpose of having Mr. Calabrese in my life was not about how much he could teach me about history or how to pass a test, it was how he showed me that life is about balance.

A couple of years after this momentous year in high school, I entered college at San Diego State University with the goal of becoming a nurse. I was faced with challenges that made my transition to college extremely difficult. I was desperately homesick, school was hard, I had bills to pay, and the nursing program was impacted, so my chances of getting accepted were slim if my grades weren’t excellent. Talk about pressure! But, I dug down deep and remembered the lessons I learned from Mr. Calabrese and my experience in that AP class. I prioritized my time so that I could study nightly, balanced my class load so that I didn’t have too many hard classes at a time, and constantly reminded myself that I was there to become a nurse and refused to let anything stop me from reaching my goal. I was accepted into the nursing program, graduated, moved back to Brentwood, and love every second of my job.

I will never forget a conversation Mr. C and I had one day. He told me that he admired me because he could see that things didn’t necessarily come easy for me, but the reason that I did well in school was that I had a great work ethic and I never gave up. This was eye-opening for me because I never realized that someone could tell how hard I worked to do well in school, sports, and social activities. I took this with me as I went to college and through nursing school. Now, instead of sports, leadership, AP classes, and part-time jobs, I juggle the workload of being a mom, wife, and Oncology Nurse. I constantly strive for that balance in life, and I can honestly say that I am always a work in progress, which I am ok with.

I often think about how lucky I am to have had such wonderful teachers at Liberty High. I will forever be grateful for Mr. Calabrese and his encouragement, support, and friendship as he is one of the most influential people in my life. I also had the pleasure of having Mrs. Snover for several years while in high school and I will never forget her sweet, kind, and gentle manner. She had the word “Integrity” on her wall and she taught us all how to live our lives as honest people and to always do the right thing when no one was watching. Her words, stories, and lessons stayed with me long after high school. I hope that my children have the same experience I did with teachers who touch their lives in such a powerful way as Mr. Calabrese and Mrs. Snover did with me.

Persistence and resilience only come from having been given a chance to work through difficult problems. – Gever Tulley

With something to think about…

Your friend Chris… and Genny too!

Can you teach Maturity? — It’s Elementary my dear Watson or is it?

Maturity: Being able to stick with a job until it is finished. Be able to bear an injustice without having to get even. Be able to carry money without spending it. Do your duty without being supervised.”

—Ann Landers

I have had the honor of being taught by some fantastic children. You read it right. They taught me. Students can teach valuable lessons. They come from different perspectives and experiences. At times I met children who showed a maturity that is beyond their years.

It is difficult to teach maturity directly. We can support its growth in and out of the classroom; however, maturity has to be modeled by others — at home, in schools, the basketball court, friend groups, at church, and on playgrounds— in order to be successfully duplicated. Some strategies can be used to improve maturity and compliment modeling maturity such as giving children regular jobs to do or taking care of a pet. Letting a child make mistakes and learn from them and then reflecting on those mistakes helps a child to problem solve and learn.

Teaching responsibility is closely tied to developing maturity. Giving children tasks that teach responsibility aids in the development of maturity. In addition, we can directly teach emotional regulation, such as what to do when angry, hurt, or rejected and how to control those feelings and not let them take over. Like maturity, emotional regulation can be modeled. Reflecting with a child or role-playing reinforces this concept. Emotional regulation is a critical factor in living a happier life.

A British study found the following: “So-called non-cognitive skills — attributes like self-restraint, persistence, and self-awareness — might actually be better predictors of a person’s life trajectory than standard academic measures. A 2011 study using data collected on 17,000 British infants followed over 50 years found that a child’s level of mental well-being correlated strongly with future success. Similar studies have found that kids who develop these skills are not only more likely to do well at work but also to have longer marriages and to suffer less from depression and anxiety. Some evidence even shows that they will be physically healthier”. —The New York Times Magazine September 11th, 2013.

New York Times Magazine Article

Emotional regulation —the key to a happier more successful life? Not something we hear every day is it? One way to speed up maturity is to have children work and play with more mature children. The truth is that showing maturity is not always consistent in every aspect of a child’s day. A student showing maturity during one task may not be as mature doing something else, at least that is what I say to my wife when I am being immature. All you can do is model maturity. Children need to see it in action so they can then emulate it. I am not saying immature children come from immature parents, well not always anyway. With maturity comes responsibility and vice versa; they go hand in hand. Empathy and compassion also teach maturity and come from being mature. It’s a circle.

When I saw two boys with maturity and compassion beyond their years, I took notice. Girls typically mature earlier than boys emotionally, socially and intellectually. The Watson brothers came to school so full of compassion for others; it was beautiful to see it played out every day. Justin’s and Jesse’s daily routine was to check in with me, their teachers, and friends. On any given day they asked me —“how was your day?” —“how was your morning?” —“how was your drive to work?” They were always genuinely interested. They offered to help with whatever a staff member was doing. They helped others around the school; finding a lost item, helping a hurt friend up to the office. They cared. They showed gratitude to those around them and even thanked others for allowing them to help. Gratitude is a sign of maturity. It was not attention seeking at all; they truly cared. Albeit to some, Justin’s and Jesse’s offers seemed awkward at times; in their heart, they just wanted to help.

The Watson family

After meeting the boy’s parents, it was clear where the foundation had been laid. Mom and Dad had high expectations of their boys, but they had also fostered caring traits, which in turn promoted maturity beyond their years. Justin and Jesse also had a strong character, instilled by their parents and played out daily. That is where their genuine concern and care for others came from. The boys saw maturity, compassion and caring modeled every day for them and in turn, they showed it to others.

The Watson brothers and I at back to school night.

I don’t recall the boys ever getting into trouble at school. I am sure they made mistakes as all kids do! I can remember one time on the playground where Jesse was physically upset. With a ball in his hand, he ran over to get me. Someone accused him of not sharing the ball. Upon further questioning, that was not really the case. Jesse held onto the ball because the accuser was not letting someone else play. The accuser had told Jesse’s friend he was out of the four square game for missing the ball.

Jesse was indignant that his friend was being treated unfairly,  the person was not out, and they had the right to play. So when Jesse could not resolve the conflict with words, he just held onto the ball which turned into a sort of keep away. I tried not to smile as the students revealed what happened. Jesse’s firm moral conviction would not allow his friend to be tossed to the wayside of the playground. Jesse was upset and he felt it was unfair, but his maturity showed when he merely took the ball and went to find help. He did not have the skills yet to solve the problem alone entirely. He knew enough to seek help and show self-restraint. Jesse’s decision was based on his character; he had a strong sense of right and wrong. He was also passionate enough about the issue to not cave. He stood his ground.

We resolved the conflict, no one got hurt. The game started back up. Fairness won. Jesse went home that day, still bothered by the incident. He talked to his parents about it. Justin, his big brother, gave him advice and encouraged him. Justin was always looking out for his brother. Justin often put others first, another sign of maturity. He reassured him he would keep an eye on them. Justin in his own words pointed out to his brother that conflicts will happen, and that people treat each other that way because they were treated that way. Jesse’s second-grade world changed that day.

The blog is about maturity, but sometimes you have to take a goofy picture with students!

These two boys have touched many lives with their acts of caring. What struck me the most was Jesse was thinking of others. Second graders are usually self-centered and in time they mature and grow. Jesse was showing humanity and care for someone else. Justin and Jesse modeled maturity to those around them; they modeled it for me, too.

Maturity comes from more than time and age alone. When parents ask me about retaining their child to keep them in the same grade because of a lack of maturity may sound sensible the reality is that they will not have the role models to encourage maturity. In fact, classmates are often six months to a year younger. I have seen retention slow the maturity process and revert a child’s social and emotional growth. Maturity is modeled by peers and adults, and it cannot be taught in isolation. For the Watson brothers, maturity was modeled for them by educators and their parents. Justin’s and Jesse’s key to maturity growth was due to — high expectations, actively teaching them responsibility, self-restraint, persistence, self-awareness, and caring for others — together this created an environment for growth.

Justin’s high school graduation

With something to think about…

your friend Chris

For more on maturity check out—Tim Elmore’s article on “The Marks of Maturity.” This is an excellent article on teaching children maturity. He also discusses children today are exposed to more sooner without the maturity to handle it.

Students with anxiety or something more?

Students have stories, all of them do. They come through our doors with experiences that sometimes we cannot imagine. Some hide their anxiety and tough situations behind smiles and humor while in others we can see their anger, frustration or apathy. We never know what students walk into our classroom doors holding onto in their hearts. I always wanted to be supportive, but I did not always have the best tools.

For the sake of this blog, I changed the young man’s name. David was a kind, funny, and hard-working student. David seemed to miss social cues sometime, didn’t care, or maybe he simply ignored them. Sometimes his mind was elsewhere. Like most 16-year-old boys he was not always organized and had a tough time staying on top of the workload. Maybe you know a teenage boy that walks out of the room only to step back in again to grab his backpack or a book? That was David. Yet there was a tenacity about him that I admired. He continued working and did not quit, no matter how tough the work got. For many of his friends, the work was challenging, but it came more naturally for them. They got A’s; David got B’s and C’s. I liked David; he beat to his own drum most of the time.

David would hang out sometimes in my room after the bell rang. We would chat as he packed up. Sometimes I just listened, sometimes I asked questions. I enjoyed talking to David. He was witty, but sometimes he turned his humor on himself in a way that was more than self-deprecating. It felt damaging.

One day in our conversation David confided that he struggled at times with being positive and that he was not happy like other students. We talked, and I tried to ask questions to get to the root of the issue. I muddled through it. I was afraid to mention suicide. I held to the myth that I could be planting a seed. David said he didn’t “know why he was here.” My mind raced to give him an answer to give him hope. I don’t remember my exact words. I suggested, “your story still needs to be written, and you are writing it.” I thought that when you get someone talking about the future, then you give them hope. While that is true for some, for a person who is questioning suicide that may not be true.

At this point, I did not know if David was suicidal, depressed or maybe just unhappy. I asked if he shared how he was feeling with his parents. He said, “I told my mom.”  He dropped his eyes and mentioned seeing a counselor. I was glad to hear that and encouraged him to do so. I did my best to support him. I was scared to say too much.

The author of the “Chronicles of Narnia” said it best when he wrote Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increase the burden: It is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.” — C.S. Lewis

I told him I was going to buy him a book called Being Happy. That being happy is a choice. I did not understand depression; I did not recognize what I could have been potentially been dealing with in David. I  focused on his self-talk, which is important, but the situation might have been worse, and I did not ask the right questions to find out. He said he was willing to read it. He thanked me, and I asked him if we could talk more. He smiled and agreed. His desire to please others overshadowed his need to share his feelings more.

I got the book and gave it to him. A few weeks went by, and he seemed to be in a better place. I encouraged him, and we continued with our chats. When the opportunity presented itself, I asked if he read the book. He said he looked at it. I don’t think he had, but I did not want to press him. I don’t remember how long it took but eventually, he gave me the book back. He thanked me and told me he read parts. We talked about what he had learned, he assured me he was doing better.
One of the quotes we discussed was — “One person sees the beautiful view and the other sees the dirty window” — Andrew Matthews, Being Happy!

I told him he could keep the book. I don’t remember if he gave it back or not, but I have a feeling he did. Throughout the year, we continued to chat. As I look back, I wonder if some of his friend group were teasing him or even bullying him. I had the opportunity to talk to his mom a few times. Although I don’t remember the exact words, I remember her saying he was doing much better and she thanked me for always encouraging him. As we talked, I realized even though she was grateful for my support, I should have talked to her sooner. Another fear we often hold as educators is a fear of what parents might say when we deliver unpleasant news. If he were my son, I would have wanted to know.

Today I would have handled that situation much differently. I would have asked more questions. I would have asked if he wanted to hurt himself. I would have called his parents. If there was an immediate need, I would have called for help! Afterward, I would have followed up.  Depending on his answer I might not have given him the book “Being Happy.” David walked away that day, and I had no idea if he was suicidal, depressed, or sad. A few more questions and I could have known.

I saw David a few years ago; he had to come out to my school. He is in the medical field helping others, which is perfect for him. He is married and has a family. His humor was still witty, and a little dry. When he talked about his children and his job he beamed. He seemed happy. It was great to see him.

  Supporting children and teens battling depression, anxiety or mood disorders takes skill but most of all it takes caring and a willingness to help. Below are the signs of suicide, how to prevent suicide and National Suicide help phone numbers. It is so important that we say something and that we seek help. Brain health is incredibly important, and yet we are afraid to talk about it.

With something to think about…

your friend, Chris.

Signs Of Suicide

  • Talking about wanting to die or wanting to kill themselves
  • Talking about feeling empty, hopeless, or having no reason to live
  • Making a plan or looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online, stockpiling pills, or buying a gun
  • Talking about great guilt or shame
  • Talking about feeling trapped or feeling that there are no solutions
  • Feeling unbearable pain (emotional pain or physical pain)
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Using alcohol or drugs more often
  • Acting anxious or agitated
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Changing eating and/or sleeping habits
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Taking great risks that could lead to death, such as driving extremely fast
  • Talking or thinking about death often
  • Displaying extreme mood swings, suddenly changing from very sad to very calm or happy
  • Giving away important possessions
  • Saying goodbye to friends and family
  • Putting affairs in order, making a will

Two organizations with direct support when needed.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Call 1-800-273-8255

24/7/365 Crisis Hotline

Available 24 hours every day

Call: 1 (800) 273-8255

Text: “ANSWER” to 839863

Second Chances – redefining yourself

I believe in second chances. I think every student deserves a chance to prove themselves and learn from their mistakes.  Sometimes the error may not have been intentional but had an impact nonetheless. Kids make poor choices at times; the frontal lobe is not firing, and they act out of impulse. My son and his friends have a saying that if one of them says “hey, watch this” it is probably a bad idea and so they tell each other “don’t do it.” They have learned from their mistakes. We all make mistakes and making mistakes is one of the best ways to learn. Creating an environment for students to learn from their mistakes is vital for their success and growth. When teenagers/ students make a big mistake, we need to guide them through the learning process and not bail them out.

Winston Churchill captured it this way One must never forget when misfortunes come that it is quite possible they are saving one from something much worse; or that when you make some great mistake, it may very easily serve you better than the best-advised decision.”

Joe, as we called him, was the step-nephew of a friend of ours. His background story is one of persistence, resilience, and grace. I met Joe the day before my wedding; because his aunt was in the bridal party, Joe came over to help us. From the start, he was a respectful young man, hard working and out to prove himself. I immediately liked Joe; there was something different about him. Joe’s aunt told me his background and that he had got in trouble and was moving from southern California for a new opportunity.

When Joe walked into my room as a sophomore, I was excited to see him. After all, the kid had chased down a wind-blown pop-up that had been protecting our wedding, brought it back, and set it up again. That told me something about his work ethic. I had high expectations of Joe, and I wanted him to contribute to the class and grow from the experience. Joe and I were talking one day, and he began to tell the story of what happened in L.A. He had expressed how grateful he was to be here and to have his grandparents take him in. Being grateful is a powerful ally when overcoming obstacles in life.  Being grateful can give us hope, confidence, and a positive outlook. In the end, all of those qualities make us resilient.

As Joe and I developed a relationship based on trust, he confided about what had happened two years earlier. Joe felt targeted by a school official at his old school. He felt the man was out to get him and went out of his way to find something so that Joe would get in trouble. On the day that changed Joe’s life, he made a conscious and dangerous choice and brought a gun to school. He felt threatened by another student. He gave me a list of reasons why he did it and why he should not have done it. How he got the gun, although important, is not the focus of the story. Why he brought it to school is equally a powerful story, however, it is Joe’s story to tell. Ultimately, Joe was suspended, put up for expulsion and sent to community day school.
As Joe told me the story, I could see his disappointment and frustration. Joe took the punishment. His parents choose to move him away from the situation to start anew, not to run away from the issue but to start fresh and without the stigma after he served his time at community day school. I admired his courage and honesty for telling me, and I thanked him for it. He was faced with an ethical dilemma and he paid the price for it. Joe didn’t stop to think through his options. Not everyone faces what he faced that day; however, I would argue kids make impulsive choices all the time. That’s another blog. This story is about second chances and not about impulsive teenagers.

Joe as the new kid was sitting at his desk, trying not to be noticed. In time he began to share more and participate more. I would often ask a question and then ask for volunteers, when no one answered, I would say “thanks Mike for volunteering.” Joe was not immune. I would volunteer him too.  He would smile and say a long drawn out “oookay.” More often than not his answer was spot on. His confidence began to grow. He started to ask questions and participate more. You could see the transformation in Joe. Joe deserved a second chance. I watched Joe make friends, play sports, get involved in activities; he gained more confidence as he learned and grew. He was a young man of great wisdom, and it showed. Joe got his second chance. More importantly, he used it and learned from it. When Joe needed help, he came and asked. Joe connected with teachers and coaches. He learned to trust and seek help when he made mistakes. Many adults in his life encouraged him and supported him.
Joe made a dangerous mistake that day, but he did not allow it to define him. His family let him go through the struggle and let him learn from the consequence. There is a balance to find between over punishing and bailing a student out. In this case, Joe had to move away from his friends, and his home and start over. He also had to move past the mistake. Joe accomplished many things throughout high school,  and from my perspective he is still doing great today. He was given a second chance. Most importantly he gave himself a second chance. He allowed himself to start over. He played football, joined the mock trial team, worked in a student movement called Power of Unity. He raised his voice about showing respect to others and demonstrating self-respect. The struggle following the poor choice he made that day did not define him, but it did redefine him and the direction he was taking.

I talked to Joe tonight and I shared this story with him. It was important to me to have his blessing and ensure it was accurate. It was good to talk to him. He is a man of faith, a deep thinker, and profoundly humble.  He thanked me for sharing this story in hopes it impacts someone in a positive way. It is a blessing to know this man. What struck me the most about our conversation is that he is still learning from this event. He applies what he learned daily.

I will leave you with this ”Take chances, make mistakes. That’s how you grow. Pain nourishes your courage. You have to fail in order to practice being brave”. Mary Tyler Moore

Let kids struggle, let them make mistakes, let them pay the consequences, don’t rob them of their learning. In no way am I suggesting that bringing a gun to school is a common mistake or an acceptable one. When a student makes a mistake, large or small, let them take the punishment and struggle with it. They will grow from it,  learn gratitude, become resilient, and, like Joe, redefine themselves.

With something to think about…

your friend Chris.