Sunday, November 29, 2015

Speaking for the Silent

"Speak what you think now in hard words..."-Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I returned to teaching last year after Peyton's suicide, the first unit I taught was American Romanticism.  Included in this unit was Emerson's "Self-Reliance".  It wasn't the first time I had taught this highly quotable essay, but this time, it took on new meaning, especially when he told people to "Speak what you think now in hard words".  I truly thought about that line and how it applied to me. 

I knew that I was not going to stay quiet after Peyton's death.  I felt as though I had some how failed him, and needed to make up for what had happened to him.  I began with social media and talked openly and honestly about what had happened to him.  I talked about his battle with depression and anxiety.  His torment at the hands of his classmates, and his all too early death at the age of 13.  I spoke to any reporter who would listen, and I spoke at schools.  Any chance I had to talk to others, I took.  The more I talked, the more I opened up, the more other people opened up to me.  People began to tell me their stories about losing loved ones to suicide, their experiences with bullies, or their own dark moments where their demons and pain became so overwhelming that they considered or even attempted suicide.  

Many of these people had never told any one before.  They had kept this inside waiting for some one else to open up and allow them the opportunity to tell others.  They had been told not to talk because it made other uncomfortable, it was a deep family secret, or it was frowned upon in our society where things like suicide and mental illness are taboo subjects.  It was then that I realized that when I spoke, blogged,  or posted, that it wasn't just for me, or for Peyton, it was for all of those that, for what ever reason, couldn't.  

In the past year, I have come to realize that I am not alone in my grief, nor was Peyton alone in his pain. There are thousands of people out there that remain silent about the suicide of a loved one because society wants them to.  People that are ashamed to ask for help because of the stigma of mental illness. People that take their own lives because they feel that the world would be better off without them because no one has ever told them otherwise.  It is for these people, the silent, that I will continue to speak in hard words.  

Friday, November 6, 2015

How to Save a Life

On October 30th, I drove across town to speak to the PACE classes at Cypress Lakes High School.  I have spoken there before in regards to bullying and the role that it had in Peyton's suicide.  That first time, I spoke to the PALS classes.  PALS stands for Peer Assisted Leadership, and these are the "good kids" of a school.  Students must apply and interview to be part of the class.  PACE is another matter all together.

In the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, PACE is a required elective for all students. Generally, it is for freshmen, but students who are new to the district take it as well.  It generally serves as a transition course for freshmen to help them become accustomed to high school by teaching skills and ideas such as goal setting, time management, post secondary options , and career exploration.  However, any time you tell a teenager that they "have" to do something, you know that there will be push back.  Yes, there will be students that openly embrace the class, but others will fight it tooth and nail, "just because".  As a result, I wasn't sure what to expect from the students.

As I stood in the LGI (large group instruction)and watched the students file in,  I was apprehensive.  I wondered if the students would take it seriously, would they want to listen to yet another person telling them "what to do" or "how to act".  My fears, however, were soon alleviated.

I began my presentation with a slide saying, "Every person you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about."  in order to get them  thinking about the inner battles we all fight, and how you never can tell about a person just by looking at them.  I then show Peyton's 8th grade picture, how normal and happy and relaxed he looked.  I then begin to put together the pieces of the puzzle that was his life, and how those pieces led to that fateful October day.  I always show a picture of Peyton, Emmalee and Ian all smiling and enjoying ice cream at the Bluebell factory, a Norman Rockwell-esque moment, right before I tell them that three months after the picture was taken, Peyton hung himself. That moment is meant for dramatic effect.  I even pause to let it sink in.  I then begin to explain about the issues Peyton dealt with on an almost daily basis.

As I was talking about the bullying he dealt with, I looked toward the back of the darkened room and saw a teacher walking a student out of the room.  I wondered why, but only briefly.  I kept talking about the power each of them had to make a difference, how they could perform small acts of kindness such as holding a door, picking up a dropped book, or even smiling at a stranger.  I talked about the mission and purpose of #Products4Peyton and #PeytonHeartProject, and ended with the last part of the quote I began with, the simplest way they could help some one, "Be kind.  Always."  A moment of hesitation and then applause.  With the time remaining, Terri Pruitt, the teacher who had invited me, let the students ask questions. There were students who cried, who wanted to hug me, to thank me, to shake my hand.  I realized that they had listened, and it felt good.

As the classes filed out, Terri came to me to tell me about the boy that had been walked out. Unbeknownst to any one, he was suicidal.  Not only had he thought about killing himself, but that day, he had a knife with him to finish the job.  His teachers didn't know.  His friends didn't know. His family didn't know.

I was stunned. This is what I have been trying to do since I began #Products4Peyton and joined up with Jill Kubin and the #PeytonHeartProject. I got to witness first hand, the power of Peyton's story. I saw with my own two eyes, and have proof,  how to save a life.  

I have preached from my soap box that educating people is the key to stopping suicide. Suicide is not going to go away because it is not talked about.  People will not stop taking their lives because we remain silent and pretend that it only happens to "other people."  To all the naysayers out there that want to dodge the truth, or hope that the problem goes away on its own, it is time to pull your heads out of the sand.  We  have to say the "word" out loud, to let others know it is okay to talk about, to know that they are not alone, broken or damaged, to remove the stigma and shame that is heaped upon mental illness, and most importantly, to encourage people to seek help.  

None of this would have been possible without Katherine Moore, Katherine Parker, Michael Kelly, Linda Griggs & Lisa Schwaeble, the PACE teachers at Cy-Lakes High School,  Rebecca Weitzenhoffer, a friend and collegue who first suggested that I speak at the school, and to Principal Sarah Harty, who took a risk by allowing a distraught father to pour his heart out to kids.  All of these people care about the students that they areentrusted with to take an uncomfortable topic and put it out there in the open.  Thank you to each and every one of you for allowing me to see first hand, how to save a life.