My parents and I like to tell stories. It’s a hobby of ours to reminisce on the bad old days to remind us how far we’ve come. Like a lot of students, those bad old days often got in the way of my schooling. While I kept up my grades, emotionally I was lost. It felt like I had two backpacks on — one with my notebooks and the other filled with anger.
The troubles stemmed from my extended family. They didn’t like my mom. They called her names, said she was trouble. That’s how it started and it’s small in comparison to what they would later do. I built a wall around myself to deal with the stress, but in the meantime the anger kicked in. It’s like I breathed it in one day.
This Fall schools in Oakland and San Francisco are preparing to roll out a three-year pilot program that provides teachers training on how to recognize and deal with signs of emotional distress in students. Data shows two out of five students in California with emotional disorders leave high school before graduating.
The plan sounds reasonable, but my own experience taught me two things: I couldn’t look to my family for role models, and adults were trouble.
The truth is for a lot of young people suffering from emotional trauma, adults are often the last place they look for consolation, especially when it’s adults that are the source of the trauma. Most turn to friends and classmates. And a lot of the time, they don’t know how to respond.
The times I tried to convey my feelings to friends, they would listen as if I was in a movie — sympathetic but disconnected. I was embarrassed by some of the stories I shared and my friends had this weird look on their faces when I spoke about them. That look told me I was alone in my pain.
I started taking my anger out on all the wrong people. Losing my temper was like a release valve and it felt good to let it out. Teachers, I took every opportunity to argue with them. I’d yell if they yelled, they’d give me detention slips and I threw them away. I didn’t respect them and I didn’t feel they weren’t entitled to respect just because they were teachers. I demanded my respect and I expected them to earn it.
Looking back it’s a miracle that I managed the grades I did. I got A’s and B’s only. But since I didn’t get along with teachers, I never asked questions in class. I never asked for help and I never communicated with them unless I was sassing off. I didn’t know how to trust them. I did everything myself and I studied hard to avoid asking them for help.
Some teachers were great but school was a business to me. If I liked how you taught I would pay you with my attention. Once that bell rang our contract was over. I left high school without ever having had a mentor or a teacher I could just talk to. I didn’t build healthy relationships.
Things might have been different had my friends been given some of the same training teachers will soon be getting. Rather than distancing themselves because they couldn’t understand what I was going through, they might have reached out and helped me to feel like I was a part of the student community instead of alone and cut off from it.
As it was, the isolation fueled the anger to the point that I began to jeopardize my own safety. I still remember the day things turned around for me.
It was on a camping trip with my family, and I will never forget how I felt. I was boiling inside and had no idea why. I saw my cousins testing the waters in the river nearby, and thought if I swam the river they might think I was all right. As it turns out the current was too strong for me. My cousin had to jump in and pull me to shore. I was so exhausted I remember I couldn’t even grip her hand.
It was at that point I realized what the anger was doing to me. I got help immediately. My parents helped me find a therapist who never made me feel pathetic or looked down on me. She didn’t talk at me, but to me. She empowered me by letting me know it was ok to feel hurt and that my feelings weren’t crazy. Therapy helped me understand my anger.
I got help because I couldn’t do it alone. I let everything out and I’m amazed at how those walls came down. That tough girl is just a story now, one my family and I like to share once in a while, a reminder of just how far I’ve come.