Sep 172016
 

The 14-year-old who called the hotline last week was in desperate need of healing and self-absolution.  I realize now, the seed of the conversation we shared was planted nearly 40 years ago.

After finishing my master’s degree, I was invited to teach mathematics at The Hun School, a private, preparatory school just outside of Princeton, NJ. Teaching encompassed four years of my life, but, for my students, I will have been their math teacher for the entirety of theirs. When you fail in many endeavors, there is often a remedy. When you fail as a teacher, your students live with your ineptitude until the day they pass from this Earth.

I often felt inept…unpolished…incapable of reaching the students who struggled mightily with algebra, geometry and trigonometry. Often, they needed a guide with great patience, and I came up short. Those failures weigh heavily even 40 years later.

A note recently left on my website, reminded me of moments in which, perhaps, I was less inept. I was touched by the memories it evoked. The missive was from Hossein Haj-Hariri, who arrived from Iran in his junior year. I could present him as proof of my success as a teacher, but Hossein would have excelled with nearly any teacher. He worked diligently, but he had an innate aptitude for mathematics. He and a few of his peers easily opened their minds to the concepts behind the numbers and the theory. Hossein subsequently spent 28 years on the faculty at University of Virginia, and was recently named dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at The University of South Carolina.

In spite of their innate ability, I remember one or two moments when Hossein and friends came with a question, standing on the precipice of understanding, but not quite over the edge. In those moments, we would engage with the mathematics; when understanding eluded us we would ask each other if we could possibly see the problem another way. As we challenged each other to look anew, there would come a moment when their eyes—or mine—would light up as we completed a critical neural pathway and a new piece of the puzzling language of mathematics fell into place. Those moments too, I remember 40 years later.

I had no idea how central to my very being the idea of seeing another way would become. This week, the young boy who called the suicide hotline was wracked by disease. The ensuing bullying from both peers and self, demarcated a life of failure, pain and self-loathing. And yet, every story he recounted spoke of his caring, generosity and fierce defense of loved ones. Late in our time together, I asked him to describe something, anything, wonderful within. “I can’t,” he told me in a soft voice. “I hate everything about myself.” So I began to recount his stories of caring, generosity and love, and asked if he could witness, not shortcomings, but his huge heart. “It’s your superpower,” I suggested. I also told him I loved him, and who he is in the world. Near tears he told me those were words he seldom hears. “Would you be willing to see your life through your enormous heart?” I asked just before the call ended. “Thank you, I will try,” were his final words to me.

So thank you Dr. Haj-Hariri for helping me discover the power of the simple question, “Could we see it another way?” You helped me ease the horrific pain of a young man whose enormous heart lay hidden.

Aug 072013
 

The following will appear in the September/October edition of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The truth of who we are is betwixt and between…and we need courage to find it.
The St. Charles middle schools recently hosted an Operation Snowflake event. Like Operation Snowball, which is for high school students, Snowflake is for 6th, 7th and 8th graders and is intended to be a place where students can be with peers who want to live a healthy lifestyle. I was asked to be the “motivational speaker” speaker that afternoon.
I thought long and hard about the message I wanted to impart; I wrote and rewrote my remarks many times. The night before the event, a teen at Operation Snowball spoke of the debilitating bullying to which he had been subjected during his years in middle school. I was so taken by his remarks, I found it difficult to sleep and awoke early the next morning and reworked my remarks one last time.
Either bullying was not the cultural tsunami it is today, or I was simply fortunate to have escaped its devastation…at least from other teens in my life. Yet I recall 7th and 8th grades as two of the loneliest years of my life. Episodes that seem trivial today, 50 years ago as an insecure and fragile human being, seemed large and unrelenting…their consequences insurmountable.
I remember a Jungian psychologist who suggested that, throughout the early years of life, we get messages from parents, family and friends about who we need to be in order to be loved or even lovable. What we must eventually discern, if we ever hope to liberate ourselves from the assault, is that few, if any, of those people know who we are at the core of our being. What makes those years terrifying and lonely is that we fall short in our attempt to be who others demand we become. Since we are someone else, it is easy to wedge a knife into the gap and twist it in such a way the pain becomes excruciating.
So that afternoon I touched on bullying. We agreed that bullying is—whether physically, mentally or emotionally—to make someone feel badly about who they are in the world. When I shared how the teen who became the man who pens these words, seldom had kind words for himself, I asked if they thought I was bullied…and who the most hurtful perpetrator was. Many realized I was, in fact, the most unforgiving bully I had to face every day.
My maternal grandmother was a woman I adored; she loved me greatly. If only I had the wisdom and courage, in moments of despair, to seek her counsel. “What I see of my life, and what I see of me, often leaves me sad and lonely. Would you be willing to tell me what you see?” She would have had amazing words of encouragement and affirmation.
And so, my final admonition for the young people of Snowflake was, in the moments when life seems unrelenting and insurmountable, find an elder who loves you and will walk with you into the truth as they see it. Tell them of your angst, fear and loneliness and ask what they see. That can be very difficult—I never had the courage to try. But the far more arduous task is to believe what they tell you. Trusting another to help us express who we are is one of the most courageous things we can attempt.
Trying to get 6th, 7th and 8th graders to sit still long enough hear my message just may be the second most courageous thing I have ever attempted. I left Operation Snowflake feeling as though I was unable to connect with those young people in the way I had hoped. And yes, many subsequent moments have been consumed beating myself up over the perceived failure. Fortunately, other adults who were in the room have said very kind things about my attempt.
Since we are often unable to see our gifts, we must look to others in the community to help us discern them. The truth of who we are in the world is betwixt and between our self-deprecation and others’ generosity. We just need the courage, when we are betwixt and between, to listen more attentively to the generous, loving words available to us. I wish now I had had the courage to ask my grandmother what she saw.
Feb 062012
 

 

Note: The following are remarks I made to members of the Latino community in Aurora, Illinois. I was asked to speak about teen suicide following another tragic death just before Christmas.
 
Thank you for this opportunity to be with you today. I am here because a mother and father have lost a child to suicide. I wish that tragedy had never occurred, but it did. My hope is to use this occasion to prevent this from happening again…from happening to any more children.
I am also here because I have been a volunteer on a suicide hotline for more than 8 years and 2000 hours, and have talked with thousands of human beings in tremendous pain. I have talked with children, teens, adults and seniors, many of whom have contemplated ending their lives.
But most importantly, I am here because of the children and the teens. I am here because of a wonderful organization known as Operation Snowball, which helps teens lead healthy lives and deal with the challenges of becoming an adult in an increasingly difficult world. It is through Operation Snowball that many teens, including some of your children, have allowed me to love them, and they have loved me in return.
Across America, and the world, we are facing an epidemic of suicide among teens. No one knows why exactly, but if my being here can help prevent even one, it will have been a tremendous victory.
If there is one thing you should remember from today it is this…you matter in the lives of your children. In my thousands of hours with people in pain, one thing is crystal clear. Every human I have talked with deeply wants to be loved and cared for by their parents. They need to know they truly matter in your eyes. They need to know they are important and loved by you! If you are like me, it is easy to believe we don’t matter to our children. It is easy to feel we are a failure in their eyes and that we are not deserving of their love and respect, but nothing is farther from the truth. They truly want to love you…and they desperately want your love in return.
I know that many of you grew up in a difficult, often frightening world. Most of you have faced and overcome difficulties I cannot even imagine. I stand here inspired by your courage and strength.
But that does not mean that your children are becoming adults in a less difficult world. It is difficult in so many other ways.
I faced bullying at school, but could escape it when I went home to be with friends. Today, teens face insults and cruelty, not only at school, but every moment of every day through the Internet and Facebook.
Over the past 4 years, our economy has made it difficult for any of us know with certainty that we will be able to support our families. Imagine how frightening this can be to a teen who may not even be able to find a summer job, let alone a career to support a family.
I grew up during the cold war, the proliferation of bomb shelters and school drills to protect us from a nuclear attack. It was scary. But today, terrorism highlights our daily news, cancer seems to impact every family and neighborhood, war rages in Afghanistan.
And there are other issues too numerous to mention.
In the face of horrible bullying, a difficult economy and horrific world news, how does it feel when a young personal world seems to fall apart—a parent yells, a clique becomes brutal, a failing grade appears, a boyfriend or girlfriend breaks off? Do we really know?
It is easy to think that our lives were so very difficult, and that our children have been given so much they have no reason for sadness, depression or suicide. But the things we have been given, the lives that have been handed to us, are meaningless if we are frightened, scared or feel hopeless. If we do not have people in our lives who can listen, truly listen, look us in the eye and tell us we are okay, life can feel truly overwhelming.
If you demand your children speak to you; if you prevent them from speaking to others about the problems they face, you prevent them from learning how to face fears that even we cannot understand. As parents, we need ears that can hear…not those of judgment. Ears that hear their fear and know it is real. Ears that will not compare their lives to ours, and dismiss their fear, but will hear that their lives are truly different than ours and can be frightening in spite of our belief it is not.
And if your children find another person in whom to confide, another who will listen in a way that we cannot as parents, then, rather than seeing it as an insult to the family, rejoice that your child has found someone to save them. One of the saddest moments I face with teens in pain, is when they tell me of an aunt, uncle, cousin, teacher or minister in whom they would love to confide; a person who loves them enough to offer comfort. But they cannot go because, they tell me, “If my parents ever found out, they would never forgive me!”
So if you see signs in your children that worry you. If they withdraw…if their habits change unexpectedly…if the patterns of their lives alter in startling ways…it is time to seek help. And it is okay to admit that you don’t know what to do. There are resources to help. Talk with a trusted relative, minister, priest, school counselor or the wonderful adults in Operation Snowball. Call the National Lifeline. Please do something. Because if you choose to simply tell your children to get on with life because you have given them all they need, then you are withholding the one thing they need more than anything…your understanding.
So if I have a final word for you. It is a single word…Love. Love them for who they are. Love them in spite of the fact that you do not understand them. Love them in spite of the fact that they are unable to understand you. But don’t just love them. Actions speak louder than words; show them you love them. Tell them you love them in every way you possibly can.
It has been said that youth are the messages we send to a world we will never see. Let us, at this very moment, commit to sending them into that world knowing they are loved and that they matter.
Gracias!
 
Resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-TALK (8255)
www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
 
Local Depression Hotline:
1-630-482-9696
www.spsamerica.org
 
For assistance in Spanish:
1-888-628-9454