By Steve Straessle
My neighbor’s son died the other day. He was a beautiful kid only 21 years into this world. Police and ambulance sirens blared as they raced up our street in an effort to revive him, but the sirens served only as an alarm that a life had been extinguished much too soon.
The boy’s parents are constantly soggy-eyed now, and they busy themselves in the yard in the hope that physical exhaustion will somehow exorcise the pain in their souls.
The boy’s father was mowing the yard when I pulled up next to him. I was backing out of my driveway, and the car was filled to the brim with my five kids and their mother. I almost felt guilty as he peered in the back window and caught a glimpse of the activity and promise belted into the seats.
I told him how sorry I was for his loss. My wife quietly began sobbing when she saw my neighbor’s face. My neighbor said simply, “He was a good boy, he just had a problem.”
My neighbor’s son was killed by ingesting drugs that should never have been in his body. There’s no use in detailing the slow path of the boy’s addiction or in describing the pharmaceutical noose he had wrapped around his neck. The boy’s father had responded to the tragedy of a lifetime with great candor and great simplicity. That candor disturbed me.
I’ve spent the last 13 years of my life trying to tap into the teenage mind. I feel like a miner constantly picking away at gray matter and rejoicing when I find pieces that hold unspeakable value, dusting off those pieces that might hold promise, and chucking those pieces that have had all the precious minerals torn and wasted by unseen hands.
I speak often with my counterpart at Little Rock Central High School, Nancy Rousseau. We compare notes, trade stories, and try to inspire each other to carry on in the face of adversity.
We represent two extraordinary and storied learning institutions. We’re both keenly aware of the unique histories of our schools and the extraordinary parades of personalities who have frequented our buildings. We are often in awe of the accomplishments of our alumni. We are often humbled by the desires of our students. And, we both worry.
We both worry because we’re convinced there must be a way to address the root of problems that tend to wrap themselves like boa constrictors and begin a slow, tight squeeze around our children. How can we help parents and their kids? How can we rattle cages without sounding like alarmists? How can we prevent another untimely, soul-bending visit to a funeral home?
Unfortunately, we know what we’re up against. You see, drugs and alcohol are waiting for your children. Like predators, drugs and alcohol wait until your son or daughter feels depressed. They wait for your son to get angry and your daughter to desire popularity. They wait for the perfect scenario to spring upon your young ones and offer them a moment of feeling good, of belonging, of leaving reality for a few moments.
The mother-of-all-weapons in fighting drugs and alcohol is just that … a mother and a father. A teacher, a counselor, or a principal. A trusted friend.
The resiliency of the drug culture with younger kids is baffling. The pervasive use of alcohol by teens is mystifying. Nancy and I worry because we have yet to find the words to appropriately articulate just what seems to happen again and again to many of our city’s youth.
We have yet to find the perfect parent (and God knows we’re far from it ourselves) but we have learned a thing or two from some exceptional individuals who have taught us to embark upon creating a culture of respect for one’s body as opposed to a culture of destruction of one’s persona.
We’ve both seen death in our time as educators. We’ve seen beautiful girls carried to graves by handsome young men. We’ve seen star athletes leave the playing field for the last time. We’ve seen the popular kids, the outsiders, the inner city kids, the suburban kids, the academics and the apathetic brought low by all too early visits with tragedy. We’ve both seen how life extinguished can affect an entire student body.
And then, we think again. Sometimes even more profound than death in the physical sense is death in the emotional sense. We’ve seen boys and girls who ingest substances in the hope of altering their personalities or their mental states or their social status. And we wonder where it’s all going.
We’ve asked each other aloud, “Do their parents know what’s going on? Do they have a clue as to what we see and hear? Surely they must not; otherwise, they would have moved heaven and earth to protect their most prized endeavor, their offspring.”
Most of the teenagers we come across are wonderful and well adjusted. However, some are suffering from self inflicted flaws that are manifested by alcohol and drug use. No school’s student body is above reproach. We have seen the smallest private school, the diverse urban school and the most rural public school affected by drug use within its ranks and what is most disturbing is the inability of parents, the inability of schools, the inability of the community to address the snowball as it heads down hill.
We don’t have all the answers in dealing with this deep cultural flaw that is inflicted upon our kids time and again. However, we do have some hints that will undoubtedly help.
Drug and alcohol use are symptoms of a larger social problem, a problem that is glorified by those who claim that knowledge, entertainment, and belonging can only be derived from the bottom of a bottle or the tip of a joint.
Self image is so important to high school kids. Belonging is more than a psychological cliché for some of them; it is a mantra that permeates everything they do. Speak to your children about the confidence that comes from doing right.
Let them know that souls are damaged by dropping to the lowest common denominator. And most of all, tell them you are most proud of them when they make a stand in a crowd. Because that’s true belonging. Belonging to one’s self.
Speak with city leaders about your desire for a community effort to come to terms with teenage drinking and drug use. Fight the impulse to wink at destructive behavior and the impulse to shrug it off with “kids will be kids.” And remember, where your child is concerned, nothing is unforgivable.
He was a good boy
I can hear the weed eater churning up dirt and grass at my neighbor’s house. The boy’s father is edging his yard and is drenched in a combination of sweat and tears. He takes off his safety goggles and flips the switch on the weed eater. He leans on the machine for support. And then, my neighbor begins shaking his head back and forth, back and forth so slowly. His lips are moving and while I can’t hear him, I can actually see what he’s saying. He’s saying over and over again in a mantra that arches to heaven’s breast, “He was a good boy … he was a good boy … he was a good boy …”
Editor’s note: Steve Straessle is the principal at Catholic High in Little Rock.