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Posts Tagged ‘life lessons’

While a great deal of press has been given to The 55 Essentials, I would encourage you that unless you are that particular teacher of the year, much fewer will probably be sufficient. When trying to write rules, several teachers I know have tried to cover every aspect of student behavior. They think of all their own personal pet peeves and the things that students traditionally do wrong, compiling them into one monstrous list. There is one major problem with this: Students are varied and seemingly eternally creative.

You doubt? A demonstration, then. In one of my early years of teaching, I had three rules, conveniently starting with the same letter: Responsibility, Relationship, and Respect. I had explained to my students that these were to govern our time together. I expected them to be responsible: bringing supplies to class, doing their homework, and being punctual. Then, I pointed out that there were certain things that were necessary merely because we were in relationship with each other, explaining that there were things I couldn’t let one student do because not everyone could do them. Finally, I explained that I expected them to act respectfully towards themselves, their classmates, and me. These three rules could be applied to every situation. If, however, I had made the typical rules like “Don’t chew gum,” “Bring two #2 pencils to class,” etc., this situation would have been allowed:

It was the year of the Winter Olympics, so many of my junior high students were watching the events. As I was enthralling my class with tales from history, I looked over, and what to my wondering eyes did appear, but one of my students in his seat with his knees under his chin, calculatingly moving from side to side. “What are you doing, Nate?” I inquired.

“I’m bobsledding.” He replied, most innocently.

Never would my rules have naturally included things like, “Do not participate in Olympic Sports using your desk as equipment,” “Don’t practice invisible instruments in class,” “Don’t make sound effects for imaginary animals,” “Do not light matches and stick them on your person,” or “Do not lay on your stomach and spin on the library tables.” [Note: I have said all of these to students.] So, you see, less is really more. Pick a few rules which address character (I currently use the Code of Chivalry, as my classroom is now decorated like a Medieval Castle) and apply these to the situations in your class. (Note: As I am predominately a middle and high school teacher, I will say that little ones may need more specifics. Just please don’t insult your seniors’ intelligence with “hands to yourself” type rules.)

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Like never before, the pressure on teachers is ever increasing. With PL221, No Child Left Behind, Standardized Testing scores, and a myriad of other “indicators,” you will increasingly feel like there are never enough hours in the day. While it is possible to work eighteen hours a day on teaching—I have done it—it is not, in fact, healthy. It took me ten years of teaching to realize that there were limits on my physical body, and that it is not wise to push those.

So listen up! This is important. Are you listening? You have permission to go to sleep—even if you haven’t finished all of your grading. I know, I know. It just means that much more for you to do tomorrow. I understand, and I’ve been there. I was one of those non-worksheet English teachers with plenty of essays and many hours logged in at the Barnes and Noble café, which incidentally is a great place to grade. My goal is always to hand things back the next day, usually because I know I will be getting more things to grade that night. But, somewhere along the line, I realized that my students would much rather wait a day or even a week to get a paper back and have a pleasant, well-rested teacher, than get papers back immediately from a teacher who was up to all hours of the night grading and now has no patience. Let’s face it, most of us are grouchy when we operate on little to no sleep.  Now that I teach history, I explain to my students that at 1 minute a page, with 180 students, that is 3 hours of my life.  The average test takes at least 10 minutes to grade, so that’s 30 hours outside of school.  I now tell my students (and their parents) if they get tests back before two weeks, to consider that a blessing.  When I explain the timing, they understand.

In addition to grading, you also can’t possibly teach everything your state expects you to. If your state is anything like Indiana, your state standards were written by people who have either never been in a classroom, or certainly didn’t work with the kind of kids I see every day. If they did, there is no way they would expect what they do. So, knowing that, my advice is this: Prioritize! Look at the skills covered on your state tests. Make sure you cover these. Once you’ve done that, critically examine your subject matter. What are the skills they will need in the next grade to be successful? If possible, talk to the teacher they will have the following year. Ask him or her for their “dream list” of skills they would like their incoming students to possess. Cover those. Then, what will help them in life, even if they never take a course like yours again? Look for opportunities to teach life lessons, and you will find tons. Be honest. How much do you really remember from high school? What you remember is the impact of the person and the WAY to study, not the material itself. My 11th grade history teacher Mr. Jackson gave me the powerful advice that students remember the things with which they emotionally connect (usually the teacher, not the subject).

Finally, teach what you’re passionate about. Remember what you loved about your subject. It really is your passion which ignites a student’s imagination. As Danny Silk says, “I’m going to have fun because there’s nothing worse than me being bored while you watch.”  If you love your material, they will pay attention. I didn’t like Science and it wasn’t easy for me, but I loved Chemistry and Physics because Mr. Minor was so passionate about it. His excitement made it impossible for me to not care. Your passion will encourage them to care.  So remember what you love, and care for yourself so it’s still enjoyable!

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This one took me a long time to debunk. If you are an insecure person, and let’s face it, most of us are when we begin teaching, the first time a person is disrespectful of your authority, it will throw you for a loop. Having my head packed full of exciting lessons and textbook examples of classroom management, I was stunned the first time someone was disrespectful of me. I internalized it. In my mind, if I was worthy of respect, they would respect me, so if they didn’t, it must be something I did. I spent months, running into years, before I realized that kids are naturally disrespectful, and as I said previously, you have to earn their respect. Finally, I was able to stop beating myself up and truly take the authority that was rightfully mine. I realized that I didn’t have to tolerate disrespect, and even beyond that, I didn’t deserve disrespect.

Now, let me take a moment to stress again: Respect is earned. It doesn’t come naturally. The weakest form of respect is positional. So, how do you earn respect? Honesty and Consistency. First of all, let’s consider honesty. Let your students be a part of your life. Tell them when you’re happy, sad, sick, going on vacation, having dinner with a friend, or attending a family birthday. One of the greatest times I have had as a teacher was the time surrounding the death of my dad about two months ago (as of writing–Father’s Day:  June 15, 2008). It was completely unexpected and happened in the middle of summer school when I was teaching the students I would have the upcoming fall. It was difficult for me, as I had only known them a week before my dad died, but when I returned to school, I made myself share with them, both who my dad was, my pain in losing him, and my pain in knowing that most of them didn’t have a dad like mine. It broke down amazing walls with them, and they were more sensitive than I could have imagined. I’ve met teachers that are so closed about their lives, they don’t want students knowing anything about them. This hardly engenders respect. Let them see you as a real person, and they will respect you. Obviously, there are lines with what you share, but in my opinion, an honest question deserves an honest answer, and boy, will they ask.

Secondly, Consistency is vital. First, let me release you: You will never be 100% consistent. You are, in fact, human, and as such, are prone to miss things, have bad days, or forget what you just told the previous student who asked. That being said, justice and fairness is something that students long for, and they look to you to establish it. Have a few basic rules that students know for a fact will be enforced every time. Apologize when you are out of line, or for those times when you have been inconsistent. A great book on this subject is Tools for Teaching by Fred Jones. He is an amazing instructor with a lot of insight, especially in the areas of establishing boundaries and being consistent.

Example as of posting:  On the last week of our 2016-2017 school year, a teacher I know lost her long-term boyfriend.  She is one who believes your personal life is not the kids’ business, so consequently shares very little about herself (to the point where she had told students she didn’t have a boyfriend despite their almost decade relationship.)  Then, when he died suddenly (as a man around 30), she was understandingly devastated.  I’m so grateful she chose to share her experience with the students.  Suddenly, kids who couldn’t stand her were crying with her–they saw her as a real person.  Those who had always liked her gave her hugs, words of encouragement, and added their tears to hers.  Yes, a few were still jerks, but for the most part, they were incredibly sensitive.  While I understand that personality may play a large role in this, I still tend to believe honest questions deserve honest answers, and being authentic is a great gift.

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I woke up early this morning (my first back in the U.S.) thinking about school. I have been out of the country for the past month, and now have a little over a week until a new year starts with all the joys and challenges that brings.

What was on my mind this morning was actually an incident from last year. I had an incredible class last year, and I’m looking forward to seeing many of them after the summer. There are very few years as a teacher when you have a class in which there is NO student that you don’t like. Last year was one of those years for me: No one that annoyed me, no one I hoped would be absent, back teaching a subject I love, just an incredible year. While that is an amazing thing, it makes preparing for this year a lot harder. It’s true that I’ve heard every year from at least one 7th grade teacher, “This is the worst class to come through the system!”, but by the time they get to us as 8th graders, they’re usually not bad (except the traditional 5 to 10.) The class coming up has mixed reviews (Some teachers loved them; most had a few challenges.) Still, going from the best class you’ve had in 10 years at the school to the unknown is bound to be rough.

So, what was on my mind this morning was an incident from the last week of school. I was in the midst of writing my traditional “end of the year” letters for my students, and when I wrote one particular student’s, I started crying (and I’m not usually a crier). So you understand, I put a lot of thought and prayer into the letters and try to say what I feel each child needs to hear. The kid that made me cry was a rough kid. He had had a hard life–more difficult than most of our kids who have hard lives. But, in the course of the year, he had shared bits and pieces of his story with me, and on a few occasions, I was able to see through the chink in his armor to the little boy he was hiding with the “tough guy” exterior.

When I read the letters to my students the next day, a number of students cried over their own letter, but his was the only one I’ve ever read that made someone other than the person it belonged to cry. I had warned him that his letter had made me cry, but he let me read it anyway (and I cried again, as did many others in the class.) When other classes came in later in the day, I heard the same statement, “I heard you’re going to make us cry.” I explained that some students do and others don’t, and that more people had cried in the previous class because I had when I was reading someone’s. They immediately guessed the student, so word had gotten out (as things do in a small school.) A student asked me, “Why did you cry over (student’s name)?” The answer I gave surprised even me. I said, “I don’t know. Maybe because no one else ever has.” The truth of that hit me like a ton of bricks. If even part of the stories I’ve pieced together about this student are true, his dad has never cried, his mom can’t stand him, and his siblings beat him up. So, in all likelihood, no one has ever looked at his life and loved him enough to cry for the things he’s suffered and the wrongs that he’s experienced. No one has watched him make bad choices and grieved for him. Whatever way he’s made, he’s made most of it himself. To me, that’s not how it should be. Somewhere along the way, I had gotten a huge heart for this kid without realizing it until I started typing.

As I gear up for a new year, I know some of the kids I will have are students that have caused a lot of problems for other teachers. I already know them by reputation or discipline reports, or from having to write them up in the hallway. And yet, if I keep in mind this situation from last year, I will remember that this kid was a student who had gotten in trouble, and who, from the exterior, made others assume he was trouble, and yet, I had seen a side of him no one else had. If I approach each student (remembering that looks can be deceiving), searching for that chink in the armor that will let me see what’s really going on with them–if I look beyond the external to the heart of a child, I will have no problem loving each one. And when a child knows you care, it’s amazing what kind of a year you can have!

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When we came back from Christmas Break and headed into the long stretch of winter before Spring Break, I could tell my students needed a bit of encouragement. In a moment of honest discussion, one student asked me quite candidly, “Why is school so boring?” At the time, I gave him a typical, “You’re used to a more fast-paced world because of video games, so it seems slow…” answer. Then, I actually thought about it and discussed it with all my classes the next day.

While it’s true that this generation has never known life without cell phones and a myriad of other technology, it does not necessarily follow that school has to be boring. I opened the discussion with the question, “What makes school boring for you?” I explained quite fervently that I did NOT say “Who is boring?” So they were precluded from mentioning specific teachers by name. I really made them analyze what was boring about their classes.
The number one thing the listed was that the content didn’t interest them.

Then, I moved the discussion to them. “Have you ever heard of the phrase ‘Tough Crowd’?” They nodded. “Well,” I explained, “You guys are a tough crowd. Imagine what it feels like for your teachers to look out and see this…” (I mimic their behavior, and they laugh.) “Do you think that makes them WANT to be passionate about what they’re talking about?” It’s beginning to sink in…

“Over break,” I share, “My mom and I went to Dollywood, and we got to see the same show performed two nights in a row. The first night, it was a good show, but the audience totally wasn’t into it. I still was pleased with our experience. But the next night, the audience was incredible–clapping, encouraging…The show was entirely different, even though they performed all the same numbers. The same is true at school. I teach the same material five times, but every time is different based on the audience. My ____ hour class last semester was awesome because they asked great questions, and we had some amazing discussions. Other classes weren’t like that. The difference is YOU!”

“What you have to realize, “I continued, “is that YOU determine what kind of class you have. This is 8th grade–all of your teachers have at least a college education. That means they know WAY more than what they’re sharing with you. So ask about it. When you’re covering material for class, look for something in it that is interesting. Think of how it relates to something you care about. Everything you study has something cool about it. When the teacher mentions something that’s interesting, ask him or her about it. They’ll have a better day because they think you care, and you’ll have a better day because you get to spend time on things you like.”

Now initially, we had to lay out some boundaries because they would just ask question after question. (I reminded them that as the one who EXPLAINED this concept to them, I knew what they were doing.) But, since then, we’ve had some incredible discussions–all related to the material we’re covering (At least loosely…). I even had one girl come up to me and say, “I tried what you said in Mrs. _______________’s class.”

“How’d it go?” I asked her.

“It was really good. Though then we had other things to do, so it got boring again…”

“Well, keep at it.” I encouraged.

Reminding students that THEY are responsible for their education too is always a good thing.

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One of my favorite things about teaching History is the projects one can do with students. This is one I did the beginning of the quarter which is a lot of fun.

For me, History is more than just names and dates–it is the story of the human experience, and as such, is relatable to everyone. I strive in my classroom to enable students to feel the feelings of those who have gone before us. Whatever the topic, whether through discussion or role play, I try to make my students “walk a mile in their shoes.”

Charters

Charters

One of my favorite projects is an approximately six week project I do involving colonization in America. Since I hated being assigned a group when I was in school, I always let my students choose their own groups. Before we get to the six week project, I do a smaller project where students have to work together to present one of the different Native American groups. I use that project to encourage my students to be creative (think outside the box) and let them experience group dynamics such as division of labor and which members you can count on. This way, when they choose groups for the six week project, they know whom they can trust.

Old New York

Old New York

I begin the project with the selection of jobs. There are approximately 105 original settlers, and, as luck would have it, I had 105 students in my class. Additionally, Jamestowne (historic) offers a list of the occupations of the original settlers. The original jobs included a majority of gentlemen, a large number of laborers, and a smattering of craftsman. I gave my gentlemen a set salary, my laborers no salary, and my craftsmen got to roll for their salary (so many “heads” equal so many dollars.) Each member had to raise a certain amount of money to secure a ticket to the new world. Because laborers received no salary, they have to “indenture” themselves to other classmates who are gentlemen and can afford them. I occasionally take taxes from them (or fine them for misbehavior). Those who cannot pay their taxes are placed in “stocks.” There are so many societal dynamics taught in this period of the project.

Rhode Island

Rhode Island

Once it is time to “Sail,” I took the class down to the football storage room. It is small, stinky, complete with barrels and a ladder where we could hang my Civil War kerosene lantern. There, by candle light, I had an alumni act as my “ship captain,” and between the two of us, we rehearsed what happened to the early settlers on the voyage, from the six week delay in the English Channel before they could get off to the problems with John Smith, who ended up spending a majority of the voyage in the brig for challenging the captain’s methods, to the Indian attack where two men were wounded the moment they arrived. Despite still being in the school, it lends a reality to the smell, the cramped quarters, and the experience.

When we return to class, each group selects one of the original 13 colonies that they will build. They are given a “plot of land” (white piece of paper) and a charter signed by their “proprietor.” Then, they have the next several weeks to create their colony. During that time, they will do research on their colony, create a travel brochure for their colony, create the rules by which the colony will operate, and build their colony.

History Fair 2012

History Fair 2012

It is always amazing for me to see the creativity and variety each group brings to the experience. I offer “supply ships” bringing items that may be purchased with any left over money from their initial salaries (all salaries stop in the new world.), but students may purchase or make their own supplies or used those provided by nature (rocks, sticks, etc.)

Finally, they are able to present their projects to the community in a history fair. We set up the projects and allow parents, teachers, and friends to come in and view all the projects. It is an incredible experience to say the least. Through the teamwork, the struggle, and the decisions, each student learns the decisions and challenges that faced our founding fathers. I think it’s a lesson they’ll never forget.

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A student told me today that I was almost like an angel or a saint—“One of those people who never do anything wrong.” She listed the traditional “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” kinds of activities. At the time, I explained that I had made choices based on a long-term perception of how I wanted my life to be and the conversations I didn’t want to have with my spouse. I then launched into a discussion of how our choices affect our lives, specifically in the areas of sex and drugs.

I realized, however, as I thought about it, that I didn’t make good decisions because I was so wise as a teenager, but because I wasn’t around all the stuff these kids are. I didn’t know anyone who was divorced when I was in junior high or anyone that wasn’t living with both biological parents (unless one of them had died.) I couldn’t have found drugs if I wanted them (except on a family trip to New York when I was offered crack), and I knew very few people who drank in high school—and those only by reputation, never around me. It’s an entirely different world from the place my students live.

To allow others who may have been similarly sheltered to understand what my students deal with, I wanted to type out a portion of their stories in their own words. The writing is in response to an autobiography project that I assigned. They started with a list of five events that had impacted their lives. Then, they could either pick one to tell in detail or all five in summary. Those were the only instructions I gave them. I got a few “When I got my tongue pierced” or “The day I met my best friend” essays, but more were much more tragic. I think for me the greatest tragedy was the realization that for these kids, there was nothing abnormal or weird about sharing these stories—it is their “normal.” I asked them for permission to share their stories with you. So here they are, in their voice, the stories of their lives :

1. When I was young, my mom lost custody of me and my brother. My grandma [name] got custody. They are still fighting for us today. My brother has seizures, so he’s kind of mental. I have two sisters and three brothers. My mom and dad were never married.
Now, my mom is engaged and my dad is now married. My dad has been married for five years almost. My family is kind of hectic. My grandma is married and has been married for six years. I moved here from [location]. I’m hoping that I’ll move down there next month after the ninth. I haven’t lived with my mom for seven years. I moved here in the third grade when I was nine. . . .

2. The first thing I remember is police busting through the door arresting my dad for drug trafficking. I was small. I’m not sure how I remember this, but Tupac’s “Hail Mary” was playing and the stove was on. My mom and I were crying.
Another memory from my childhood is me, about three now, sitting in a tub. My mother was washing my feet. I cried because the water was too hot. I got burned.
I remember when I was thirteen, when my dad was arrested again—on Christmas. My mom went to rehab for alcohol abuse. My brother and I cried together.
I remember being forced to share a house with my grandparents, staying outside all day, playing football and basketball with my brother.
I remember my first fist fight. I won. But, I felt so bad.
I remember the first time I thought I was cool and try a cigarette. I coughed my lungs out. I almost died. Ha-ha. . . .
I remember a lot of things. Negative or not, the memories have made and shaped who I am today.

3. Birth. My parents got divorced. My dad got remarried. My mom got remarried. I ended up with two sisters and three brothers on my mom’s side. My step mom told me she was pregnant on my birthday. Worst birthday ever because I wanted to be Daddy’s little girl. Sixth grade, my little sister was born. I was scared. My mom took my dad to court for custody of me. We lost. My dad wouldn’t talk to me for a few weeks after that. Seventh grade, I got in my first fight. I was afraid my dad was going to kill me, but he just said as long as I didn’t lose, then I wouldn’t be in trouble. And now, here I am.

4. When I was a little kid, my dad was not a good one. He is/was a drug addict. My mom had me at a young age and wasn’t married to my father. My mom had me in April, and they got married in September. She married him because she thought he would change. But, he didn’t change. He would steal my mom’s car and leave. When he left, he would go get high on cocaine or marijuana and stay out until it wore off. When he would come home, he would make up lies about where he was at. My mom dealt with it for a long time. Then, I found out that my mom was pregnant with my sister. She had my sister and still put up with his crap. In August [year], they finally got divorced. I was sad about it, but then I got over it. He couldn’t keep a job and was in jail a couple of times. In March [year], I got a call that my dad wanted to see me. I went home and saw him. He was with my cousin. My cousin and my mom were talking, and my dad took me in my room and said he wanted to talk to me. We sat on my bed and he started to cry. He had been doing drugs and told me that he didn’t want to live anymore. I screamed and started crying. My cousin and my mom ran in the room and asked what happened. Then, they left, and I didn’t see my dad for a while. In October [year], my dad went to jail for a month and a half. It was sad, but then again, oh well. He is now sort of stable and has a job. But, if any of that wouldn’t have happened, my mom probably wouldn’t be the woman she is now and wouldn’t have raised me like she did. I probably wouldn’t be as strong as I am now and independent.

5. I grew up in a house with four rooms two bathrooms. I lived with my mom, dad, and two sisters. This was until I was six. My mom decided to move out and get a divorce. We went to my aunt’s house for a couple of days, then moved out to [location.] I lived there from [time]. I went to first and second grade in [location]. We had moved in with my uncle. Things got bad between me and his daughter, so we went back to my aunt’s. This time, we lived in the back house, which the last time was occupied. We lived there for like two years. In [year], my mom wanted to move again, so we did. We had to move schools again and make new friends. Well, I liked it because it wasn’t that hard. . . .

6. I don’t really remember when I was born, so I’ll skip to when I was five. When I was five, my mom, my mom’s ex, and I used to live in [location.] My dad would always think my mom would cheat on him. He was a truck driver, coming home only some weekends, so he did not know. I know my mom didn’t cheat on him because I’m here from like __to two o’clock. So then my mom and dad divorced. We got kicked out of our house and forced to move here. We lived with our uncle until his wife didn’t want us to live at their house. So we moved into my grandfather’s house. I loved it there because he didn’t care what we did at all. My life has been very well after all of this. My mom has a very good job and she is very well. . . .

7. [Date] is one day I will never forget. One interesting day, I should say. That day I won’t forget because I lost my dad that day. I was at my friend [name]’s house, and early in the morning, my dad got up and decided that he didn’t want to be around anymore. He got up, and he got dressed. He and my mom got into a huge fight. They wouldn’t stop. They argued about everything, until my dad got so far, he grabbed a knife and started going towards my older brother’s room, and my mom had to call the cops. The cops heard the whole thing over the phone and were sent to our house right away. My dad was escorted out and told it would be best if he were to stay gone for a few days. It ended up being more than a few days. When I came home, he was gone. I saw my dad again that July when there was a medical emergency including me where I had to go to the hospital because my little brother shattered a glass window in my face at about three inches away from my face. I was put into the emergency room for eight hours. They took X-rays of my face and hands and then sent me home.
The problems just spiraled out of control from there. My brother was sent to a mental institution, shortly after the incident with my face, and we went in for family counseling. One year later, my little brother was released and sent back home. Before he was released in [time], I had stopped seeing my dad in [time]. I haven’t seen him in a year, nor has he tried to contact me in over a year. I really don’t understand why it seems like my dad didn’t care, and if he did, he had an odd way of showing it. I kind of miss my dad, but I don’t really miss the things he said and he did. On [date], my parents will be getting a divorce, and then me and my two siblings will be put in a custody battle. This will probably be a long, hard process, but it will have to be done. I hope to have all the fighting over with soon, but with all this, something good is sure to come.

8. A few months after living a life of abuse and lies, I broke. I couldn’t handle the stress, and I couldn’t bear living with my mistakes. I found a bottle of pills and took nearly twenty. I was numb. I stumbled into my room. Becoming more and more dizzy, I began to pass out. My sister walked into the room, picked up the pill bottle, and screamed. She quickly told my mom what had happened. She was screaming, crying, and starting the car. I was rushed to the hospital. My family was shocked. I was forced to stay awake until a room had opened. I could hear my mom filling in the rest of the family. I could only make out a few words… “She found Grandma’s pills…she was raped.” I closed my eyes as I was put on a stretcher. My inner thoughts were screaming, “Take me, take me, take me already.” The nurse interrupted them as she impatiently shoved a large white bottle in my right hand and a straw in my left. “Drink quickly, sweetheart.” I took a sip. Charcoal. I should have known. I drank hastily, growing more and more terrified. I heard my step sister inform my mother what had to come next. 72 hours in a padded room. I trembled. “Why hadn’t I just used a quicker method?” My inner voice boomed in my head. By now it was 11:00 pm. I had arrived at around 3:00 pm. I was exhausted. Hauled onto a stretcher, the paramedic socialized and tried to give me advice. I fell asleep, and awoke in a new hospital. A mental hospital. I stayed there for almost a week. I will never forget this experience. And I hope nobody will make the mistakes I have.

These are just a sampling, but I think they paint a clear picture. May we love well and never be fooled by the calm exterior. Additionally, may we realize that not everyone’s dealt the same hand in life, but as so many of my students did, understand that regardless of the hardships, there is still hope.

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