Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gone Too Soon

DERRION ALBERT.  Do you know him?  He's a 16-year-old, honor roll student from Chicago who was killed by a group of his peers in front of his school.  It seems as if this horrifying, sad, tragic incident is a case of a young person "being in the wrong place at the wrong time" meeting up with another young person or persons who don't know what to appropriately do with their own anger, frustration and sense of hopelessness.  Unfortunately, there are too many stories about young people "being in the wrong place at the wrong time" and too often the story doesn't end well.  Too, too many of us know of a peer, classmate, sibling, friend or acquaintance who has been the victim of school violence. 

School violence.  A topic that I feel doesn't receive enough attention from young people, parents, other adults and society.  School violence.  Does "society's" lack of shock, outrage, anger and intolerance for this epidemic signal something greatly amiss with us?  School violence.  Is it okay for young people to fight over turf, girls, boys, words spoken, coats, shoes, money, respect?  School violence.  When is it ever ok for a young person to bring a gun, knife or other weapon to school or school events for the purpose of attention, protection or reputation?  School violence.  Why do many young people and adults alike feel this is NOT an issue in their school community but as something that goes on with those "other" kids in that "other" community?  School violence.  Two words that signal to young people that you are not safe, you are not valued, you are not important.

The lesson for young people is this:  Violence is NOT the answer and school violence is NEVER the answer.  It's not okay to solve your problems through fighting.  It's not okay to bring a gun to the school dance.  It's not okay to stab a peer because you don't like the way he or she looks.  It's not okay to harm others with your words or deeds when you aren't feeling good.  It's not okay to "go along" with your friends and support them in chasing someone down and beating them with weapons and objects.  It's not okay to stand by and cheer when someone else is being hurt.  It's not okay to plan to harm your class or your school because you don't know how to express your feelings.  You don't want to make a choice or decision that may cost you your freedom or your future.  Peace and communication are ALWAYS the answer.  Find an adult or other young person you like and trust to talk to about how you are feeling.  Ask them to help you to feel better about yourself.  Read a book about someone who has overcome a similar situation as yours.  Write poetry or short stories to share with others about your experiences.  Be the bigger person and set the positive example to admitting you were wrong when appropriate, apologize when needed and forgive and forget when asked.  Talk to one another and find out that you have more in common than different.  Support one another.  When you see a classmate, peer or friend feeling down or going through something, offer words of encouragement and a listening ear.  Sometimes a smile and a hug is all that is needed.  You will find that if you give this, it comes back to you in your time of need.   

DERRION ALBERT.  May we all, especially young people, learn from what happened to him.  He lost his life at the age of 16 and over something that is not clear.  But what is clear is that he, like too many others, lost his life over something senseless and without merit or meaning.  He will NEVER see his high school graduation.  He will NEVER go to his prom.   He will NEVER see another basketball or football game.  He will NEVER get to hang out with his buddies and play video games.  He will NEVER get to stress over SAT's, college applications, leaving home for the first time.  He will NEVER get to build a career, get married, have a family.  He will NEVER get to experience the joys and sorrows of life.  He will NEVER get to see his parents again and bring them the joy that most young people bring their parents.  He will NEVER get to be what you all are capable of being: good, honest, caring, responsible young people who become good, honest, caring and responsible adults. 

DERRION ALBERT.  Gone too soon.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Who Am I?

"I don't have the looks of Rihanna, the body of Beyonce or the height of Ciara".  That is what one of my students said to me today as she was tearfully sharing with me the pain she feels for "not being pretty enough, not being skinny enough, not being smart enough" to be popular in school.  Her parents don't understand her pain and she doesn't know how to talk to them in a way that will help them to understand.  They talk at her and not with her.  This student is none of those things she described.  She is the exact opposite:  beautiful inside and out, funny, smart, a deep thinker.  She's someone, like many of her same-age peers, who believes in the good in people.  So why doesn't she believe better about herself?  Her story, unfortunately, is not unique.  I encounter many students, male and female, who don't know who they are, have no idea how to define themselves, and no idea how to find the answers.  This student feels alone, confused and ovewhelmed at trying to live up to an image that she has no idea how to define or articulate in a way that makes sense to her or anyone else.

The mind of a teenager is constantly at work, constantly processing.  That can be a good thing but the troubling part with that is in many cases, that mind is processing material that tells them how they should be, how they should look, how they should think, how they should dress, how they should behave.  Material found on TV, in magazines, in the movies, on the internet.  Material that usually indirectly sets a standard that most, if not all, young people cannot reach.  This can be detrimental.  How many young people have not realized their full, individual potential because of a false sense of "how they should be?"  How has society lost out as a result?

There is some normalcy in an adolescent's search for identity and the answers to the question of "who am I?"  However, when everywhere a teen turns they see "perfection" in those they admire and then they look at themselves and see a lot of 'imperfection", it leads to uncertain feelings and negative thoughts of self.  It leads to a sense of feeling "not good enough".  It leads to pressure to be something other than what makes that individual happy.  It leads to preoccupation with doing things that will make others happy, thus leading to neglect of schoolwork, limited school success, lack of identity, poor relationships, family discord, disconnect with one's value and moral system.  It leads to feeling different as if one doesn't "fit in" with everyone else.

The lesson for young people is this:  In this world in which you live, there are always going to be people you see (movie stars, rappers, musicians, athletes, models) who are your age and SEEM as if they have perfect hair, perfect bodies, perfect skin, perfect wardrobes, perfect friends, perfect houses, perfect cars, perfect lives.  It is normal to want to experience what you "think" their life is like.  The happiness, good times, fancy clothes, money, wonderful family and friends.  However, it is imperative that young people realize that what they think of these people is a PERCEPTION, something that is not real.  A PERCEPTION is all it is.  A design to distract you from your greatness.  That perception in no way defines you.  It in no way is a measure of who you are OR who you can become.  Young people must remember that each and every individual has THEIR OWN unique set of gifts and talents.  There is no one in the world identical to you.  That is to be celebrated and built upon.  Love yourself and love all that is a part of you from your physical appearance to your intellect to your personality traits.  Who you are is determined by you.  Don't underestimate yourself and instead challenge yourself.  Challenge yourself to read more, to study more, to help more, to do more.  Trust your sense of right and wrong.  Don't be afraid to be different.  It's okay to not follow the crowd.  It's okay to not be the most popular person in school.  It's okay to be the quiet person in the class.  It's okay to not be the most muscular person or the skinniest person in class.  It's okay to not have a boyfriend or girlfriend.  It's okay to not spend Friday and Saturday nite at the popular hangout.  It's okay to reject those things that can lead to trouble:  drugs, alcohol, sex.  It's okay to be you and to feel good about it.  Understand that "who you are" is a work-in-progress, a work that will constantly evolve throughout your life.  Talk to your parents or an adult you trust and know will give love, support, guidance.  Write them a letter.  Let them know who you are, your likes, your dislikes, your feelings about the world in which you live and the people in it.

Life is full of surprises and excitement.  Figuring out the answers to the question of "who am I?" is part of the surprise and excitement.  Approach it with enthusiasm, embrace the journey, stay the course.  Adolescence is an uncertain time, yet a short period of time in life.  When you are finished and reach acceptance of self, the face of Rihanna, the body of Beyonce, the height of Ciara or anything about anyone else will not matter.  It won't matter because you took the time and developed the courage to find out "who am I?" and you probably like the answer.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Power of the Game

"Don't hate the player, hate the game".  A phrase that one of my students happily used when discussing and justifying his participation in a "misunderstanding" with several female peers.  I believe that most young people get an ego boost when using, while most adults, such as myself, probably cringe when hearing this often-used phrase.  As I sat listening to him I wondered out loud if he understood ANYTHING about "the game".

The game.  What is "the game"?  Different people have different answers.  It could mean that compilation of the popular sports.  Sports such as football, basketball, baseball and hockey.  Huge, multi-million dollar stadiums and arenas are built for the game.   Schools suspend classes early for the game.  Young people stay after school and come back on weekends for the game.  Young people choose schools and colleges for the game.  Sunday afternoons in the fall, weeknites in the winter and Saturday afternoons in the spring and summer are scheduled for the game.  Celebrities, athletes and other high-profile individuals get glammed up and blinged out for the game.  Newspapers dedicate separate sections for the game.  Advertisers spend unimaginable money for the game.  Many workplaces become havens for athletic wear on certain days for the game.  Backyard bbq's become much more fun for the game.  While all this is true, I believe "the game" is much more.  It is that thing that is held in very high esteem and part of the fabric of American society and culture.  The real "game" for young people is figuring out and executing what is necessary to establish a firm foothold on life, to make something of yourself, to leave that imprint for others to follow.   

Here is the lesson:  The power and importance of "the game" should not be misunderstood or underestimated, ESPECIALLY by young people.  If you understand the game, you understand the ingredients needed to mix together to produce a well-paved path for success.  The ingredients of strength to approach everyday with a new perspective, courage to try something new, fail and try again, endurance to stay on the climb upward, intelligence to seek assistance when needed, humility to honor your God-given gifts and talents, desire and dedication to never give up, belief that with practice, you can be among perfection, willingness to change and the compassion to want to reach back and help others.  Football players who possess the ingredients win super bowls, baseball players win world series, basketball players win NBA and WNBA titles, hockey players win stanley cup trophies, gymnasists, swimmers and skaters win gold medals.  Young people who possess the ingredients graduate from high school, further their education, create careers, build families, make positive contributions to society, leave legacies for other young people to emulate and build upon.   

So the next time you happen to be one of those who quickly jumps on "the game" bandwagon, think about and remember what "the game" entails.  How you master "the game" will be a blueprint for the structure of your life.  The work, the energy, the commitment, the dedication.  All is critical in the game of life.  All are needed to navigate the many waves, bumps, hurdles and turbulence that life can and will bring.  Be good at recognizing your talents.  Be good at acknowledging your weaknesses and persevere to overcome them.  Be good at understanding you can't change the past, but you can determine the future.  Be good at designing a strategy for success in the classroom, for it will transcend into your existence in the world.  Be good at drafting honest, committed people who will support, encourage and mentor you during the good and bad times.  Be good at helping someone who has a hard time at something that comes easy to you.  Be good at challenging yourself to always do better and to look for ways to be better.  Be good at remembering the values and morals learned growing up.  Be good at respecting others and the differences of others.  BE GOOD AT THE GAME!!!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Skipping Out and Missing Out

Today I attempted to meet with a student who has been absent many days since the start of school.  The start of school which began a mere three weeks ago.  Skipping school.  For some young people, it seems like a rite of passage, something "harmless" you do on occasion with your friends, something that in some schools is an organized, unofficial day called SENIOR SKIP DAY in which the seniors and a few underclassmen always find it acceptable to participate.  An opportunity to "get over" on your parents and teachers and rebell against a school rule and test the limits set for you.  Some stay home, gather at a friend's house unsupervised, visit a neighboring school, hang out at the mall or venture to a nearby town or community.  Rarely, if ever, does SENIOR SKIP DAY involve books, studying or going to the library. 

For others, skipping school is a sign of something more serious, something that in most cases needs and requires the attention of an adult.  I have known students who skip school because they feel sad or even depressed, they are fearful of being around their peers, they feel intimidated in the classroom, especially if they just can't seem to understand the teacher, they are being harassed by one or more peers, they feel isolated and/or different, they have no money for lunch or new clothes, they have to care for younger siblings or a sick parent, they have to care for a child of their own, they have to seek and maintain employment, or they have no means of transportation to school.

The school attendance rate at many schools hovers around 75-80%.  Where are the rest of the children and what are they doing?  How much learning is lost when children don't come to school?  Where are the adults in their lives and do they condone school absence?   Just a few of many questions to ask to begin to solve the problem of school attendance.

I don't yet know why my student is missing so many days.  However, the lesson for young people follows.  If you or somebody you know is experiencing any of the above or something similar, seek the help of a parent, teacher, counselor, adminstrator or other caring adult.  You are not alone and things are never as bad as they seem.  Your education is probably one of, if not, the most determinant factor in your personal success.  Don't waste or squander it.  AND DON'T UNDERESTIMATE YOUR POTENTIAL.  If you can dream it, then you can do it.  Most young people are used to hearing, "get a good education, so you can get a good job".  While true, I find that to be a small part of the story.  Education, once obtained, can never be lost.  It cannot be given away or stolen.  It can be enlightening, comforting, inspiring.  It will challenge your imagination, motivate your thinking, spark your creativity.  It knows no boundaries, no limits.  It provides an avenue for giving and receiving information.  Information that will help you become more conscious, aware and interested in the world in which you live, all the people which live in it and an appreciation and understanding of the similarities which bond us as humans.  Information that will help you feel better about you. 

Education is its own rite of passage and opportunity.  Passage to life and the world.  Passage to discovering all of the talents you possess and the tools to use in sharing those talents with others.  Opportunity to achieve more than those before you, to set the stage for those after you.  Without education, that doctor can't heal, that lawyer can't defend, that architect can't design, that writer can't write, that pilot can't fly, that stylist can't style, that player can't read plays, that president can't lead, that social worker can't transform lives, and that teacher can't teach.  

So the next time you decide to skip school, take a moment to think and remind your friends that if you skip school, then you skip out on education, that thing that is timeless and priceless.  In thirty years, no one will remember what you did on SENIOR SKIP DAY or why you weren't in school, but they will remember what "cool" things you did with your education.  Remember, you control your future, no matter your story, and getting an education is a good start.  Just ask those who skipped school.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

To Be or Not To Be

HIGH SCHOOL.  A frightening place for many young people.  I talk with 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th graders everyday and am surprised at how unsure, insecure and uncomfortable many students are at the prospect of new, unfamiliar experiences and pending graduations.  These somewhat normal feelings coupled with the strong desire to "fit in" usually leads to the question:  to be a follower or not to be a follower.  Which one are you?  At your 25th class reunion, what will your classmates remember about you?

It's important for young people to realize that high school is scary for just about everybody.  It's okay to feel a little nervous or uneasy about this unknown world that you've heard so much about and probably couldn't wait to start.  You are not the only one who is or has been fearful of getting lost finding your way to a new class, struggling to understand your schedule, remember your locker combination, changing in front of unfamiliar faces for gym class, having the "right" clothes, having to stand in front of your class and introduce yourself and say at least one interesting thing about yourself, or walking down a hallway of upperclassmen and "hoping" no one says something to you. 

It's no question that high school is a culture onto itself.  A place where you realize that you are finally "almost" an adult, a place where you can make lifelong friends and memories, find a sport you really love, discover your passion for science, love of math or fascination with english literature.  A place where you experience homecoming, hay rides, sadie hawkins, yearbook parties, sweet sixteen, spring dance, prom.  A place where you experience more homework than ever, research projects, group projects, essays, oral presentations, PSAT, SAT, college tours, detention.  A place where you can't wait to leave, yet cry uncontrollably at senior farewell and graduation.  A place where you wonder, "do all these adults really care about my education"  and "do I really have what it takes to succeed in life"?  The answer to those questions is YES!!!!  Teachers care about your education and work really hard everyday planning meaningful, interesting and enlightening lessons that challenge your thinking, motivate good behavior and spark your creativity and imagination. 

As you get up everyday and scramble to make it to homeroom on time, will you be the trailblazer or leader, the person who starts a new student-run organization, forms a student council with specific focus on issues relevant to young people, forms a book club, math team, science experiment or community service project, advocates for increased funding, teacher supports and better parent involvement.  OR will you be that other type of person, the follower, one who will undoubtedly look back in life and wish desperately for an opportunity to relive this once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

HIGH SCHOOL.  A time to learn, explore, create, develop, organize, produce and construct, all while under the careful watch and supervsion of caring adults.  No matter your personal history, this is the time to believe in yourself, recognize your talents, make an imprint, build a foundation rooted in honesty and hard work, establish a legacy.  I challenge you TO BE the leader, that one that others will talk about EVERY year and not just at the reunion where you have to wear a yearbook photo for others to recognize you. 

Best wishes for this school year and in your trailblazing journey!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Those "Other" People

In the last 24 hours there has been a lot of talk about Kanye West, his behavior at the VMA awards and his behavior "in general".  I had an opportunity to see a part of his interview last nite with Jay Leno.  I'm not going to pass judgement regarding the "incident" in question or on Kanye, mainly because I do not know him and nor do I know what life is like for him.  However, something during the interview caught my attention.  When asked what he thought his mother would say to him regarding his behavior, Kanye became noticeably silent, almost melancholy.  His posture and demeanor changed in front of the audience.  To me, he seemed to "have checked out" of reality for a few brief moments.  I immediately wondered if he was having flashbacks to times spent with his mother and things he wished he could have done with her and said to her.  To me, that was extremely telling and I began to wonder how life has been for him since the passing of his mother, an individual who by all accounts was a significant, influential figure in his child and adult life as well as his professional life. 

The lesson, not media speculation, for young people, especially adolescents, is this:  Your parents, although they may annoy you in some way EVERYDAY and don't seem to live in your "reality", actually DO have your best interests at heart.  My experiences have taught me that deep down most adolescents believe this about their parents.  Your parents, mother and father, are here to guide and support you, not let you get away with whatever you want and teach you the boundaries, rules and norms that will prepare you to navigate the big world that awaits you.  Your relationship with your mother or father may "look" different than your relationship with your other parent, but both are EQUALLY important.  Try to remember that your parents are not going to be with you forever.  Unfortunately, sometimes tragic things happen and you don't want to have to figure out how to live with a bunch of regrets about things you wish you had done differently. 

Love, appreciate and respect them now when you have the opportunity.  Try to spend as much time with them as possible and invite them, from time-to-time into your world.  Your world of friends, your world of music, your world of sports, your world of fun.  Believe me when I tell you that they will appreciate it.  Instead of sending that extra text, phone message or email to your friends, send a note of thanks and love to your parents, not just on birthdays or major holidays.  Parents need to hear expressions of love from you as much as you need to hear it from them.  Those signs or affirmations that they are doing a good job will be well received.  Let them see what makes you happy and let them see that all the things they have been teaching you really hasn't fallen on deaf ears. 

Hard as it may be, try to remember that parenting is an IMPERFECT and LEARNED process, usually as you go along.  If you do all of this and are fortunate enough to be able to experience your parent in a different way when you are older, you will find that you have become a better individual, one grateful for the sacrifice, love and guidance of your parents.  Again, I don't know Kanye West, but judging by his response to Jay's question, he would probably give up everything for an opportunity to spend more time with his parent.

Good luck and don't forget to hug your parent or parents today. 

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Missing Dad

This past week I was having a talk with a student who told me that he didn't like his father much.  His high school career can easily be described as one of many ups and downs with many periods of seriousness and aloofness.  As a response to my surprise he added that he NEVER liked his father much.  When young people tell me about their feelings, I always ask questions and one of those questions is always "why".  He told me that his father puts on a show pretending to care when around others but never does much for him and never really comes around.  His father has never encouraged him in school, has never helped with homework, has never encouraged him in sports, has not talked to him about "picking the right girl", has not had "THE SEX" talk with him, has not shown him how to tie a tie, has not shown him how to shave or cut his hair, has not watched the NBA Finals, NFL Super Bowl or World Series with him, and has not taken him out on outings or trips to ball games.  This student who is close to the adult age matter-of-factly told me that he's been figuring life out for himself and that he doesn't need or want his father.

The subject of "parental absence" has been a hot topic, particularly since our President made note of it in his Father's Day message.  As I think about this subject, I think about countless stories, told by countless teens who have no daily, consistent interaction or relationship with their fathers.  This dynamic has created a lot of anger.  What is the impact?  I don't know if anyone knows the total depth of the impact but I do know that angry teens become angry adults.

I am not a parent myself, but rather than feed or enable the anger, I try to give young people a different perspective to consider.  It certainly doesn't ease the pain but may increase understanding which I believe leads to resolution.  In my years of working with parents, I cannot recall meeting a parent who intentionally wished ill-will, hurt or harm on their children.  Parents don't wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and plan how they can mess up their child's life.  What they do is tell me this:  parenting is a tough, sometimes thankless job.  It comes with no manual and in many cases, comes unexpectedly.  It's a full-time job with no vacation time or sick leave.   It's demanding and always evolving.  It produces anxiety, stress, frustration, happiness and unbelievable joy.  Most agree that they weren't prepared mentally or financially for the responsiblity and were afraid they couldn't be a good parent.  They also tell me parenting is something they would do again, without hesitation.

As a person who believes that individuals control their life direction and not to undermine the importance of parental presence, I say this to young people:  no parent is perfect, whether present or absent from your life.  Your life's direction DOES NOT have to be determined by whether or not your parent, particularly your father, has been present in your life.  Parents come in all packages from that special teacher, to your little league coach or scout leader, to the youth minister at your church, to the neighbor next door.  Take the gift that God has bestowed upon you (a mind filled with unimaginable creativity to dream, make choices and decisions) to soar and achieve beyond expectation.  Life awaits your imprint, your trail, your vision.  Dream long and dream big.  Never give up and never limit yourself.  Never tell yourself "I can't" and never accept "I can't".  Never succomb to what others may label you and never label yourself.  I await your positive contributions to the world.      

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Working Hard In School

Today, a number of students in my school watched President Obama's speech to children, which originally aired yesterday morning.  I, myself, had the opportunity to watch his speech last night.  I'm still baffled by all the "hoopla" over this speech.  It could not have been more positive, inspiring and relevant to what our young people need to hear in these times.  I'm impressed that the leader of this country, like others before him, would take the time to share a few words of wisdom with those who, arguably, need it most. 

As I walked by the classrooms this morning and peered in, I noticed the students watching very intently.  There was no goofing off and not much movement.  There-in lies the lesson:  When one is saying something that young people feel are relevant to who they are and what they think, they listen and listen carefully.  It is no doubt in my mind, that hearing his speech changed the direction for some of the students at The Baltimore Talent Development High School.  I'm sure it also changed the direction of countless other young people who have also heard his words.  Kudos to our President and kudos to our young people who hear his words, make necessary change and take action. 

Teens don't always remember that they are on a life journey, one that will be full of ups and downs and that the the number of ups and downs is highly correlated with the decisions they make during their young years, particularly the teen years.  President Obama, in his speech, clearly and eloquently articulated "the plan"...what needs to be done to secure a better tomorrow....NO MATTER the situation, background or dilemma.  I wish all of our young people well.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Why a blog?

Why a blog?  That is a good question.  I have long wanted an opportunity to communicate with teens from all walks of life.  For the past fifteen years I have had the privilege of working with the urban, adolescent population.  I'm positive I have learned more from them than they have learned from me.  Each day is a new, unique opportunity to experience life through the eyes of a young person.  I LOVE my career as a school social worker.  I find that many of the adolescents I know struggle with the stressors and pressures of growing up in the world today.  I also find that adolescents have lots to say about themselves, life and those "other" adults, meaning parents, in their lives.

This blog is intended to share my experiences at my school and in my work with the hope of providing a forum for young people to share their thoughts and experiences with one another.  I will chronicle my experienes as a school social worker as I encourage all students to dream larger, think longer and work harder.  Nothing is out of reach.

I am excited about this new endeavor.  Thank you for visiting my blog and I hope you will follow me and my journey through the 2009-2010 school year.  I look forward to reading your comments and learning about your experiences.  To the teens who will visit...hug your parents...their sacrifice for you is immeasurable.  To the parents who may visit...hug your teen...their love is priceless.  Welcome!