Monday, April 16, 2012

Hoops, horrors, and hope

Last week, I experienced two of the most powerful days of my young teaching career. On Wednesday, Chris Herren was a guest speaker at school. For those of you who are not familiar with his story, Herren was once the next big thing in basketball. He was a local kid from Fall River who decided to play for Boston College, and eventually ended up playing in the NBA, including for the Celtics. However, his career was derailed and destroyed by his drug addiction. It started off with “just” smoking pot and drinking beer as a teenager, which eventually led to him getting hooked on cocaine, which led to oxycontin, which led to heroin.

Herren was a very powerful speaker. First off, he looked and sounded like someone the students could relate to, wearing jeans and a plaid shirt and speaking in his Boston accent. Then there was the content of his presentation. He began his story by talking about how in his freshman year at BC, he was required to go to a lecture on drugs, and he was one of those kids who laughed at it. As he said this, sure enough there were a few students in the audience laughing to one another. He pointed and whistled at them and asked if they were following him, effectively demanding their attention. From that point on, you could hear a pin drop in that gym.

One aspect of Herren’s talk was that he didn’t hold back. I’m sure that there are a lot of parents who are upset that he didn’t censor himself, but I think that the grim reality is exactly what these kids needed to here: stories of sleeping on the street, of having his heart stop and get restarted on two different occasions, of having needles hanging out of his arm, of an Italian man pulling a string of heroin bags out of his mouth, of dragging his children into the car so he could go meet his dealer, and so on. One of my students said that he knew that drugs did bad things to your body and life, but he had never before realized just how much damage they could cause. That kind of shock and awe may have been controversial, but it was effective, so censorship be damned.

The real turning point for Herren was when he left rehab to attend the birth of his third child, and was high just a few hours later. His wife finally told him to leave and get away from her children. When he returned to rehab, someone there told him that he needed to call up his wife and tell her that he was going to drop off the face of the Earth and to tell the kids that he had died in a car accident, saying that he was scum and that this was the best thing he could do for his family. This was the push Herren needed to finally get sober. This part of his story was extremely emotional, and I found myself tearing up.

What was even more moving, however, was the students’ responses afterwards. During the question time, some students asked good, thoughtful questions. One kid said that going into the presentation, “I thought this was going to be crap,” and then said that he wanted to thank Herren for being there. One of our school’s biggest thugs, a kid who’s always getting into fights and has been arrested a number of times, actually asked a question (“What’s the hardest part of your day?”), and the shock in the room was palpable. A couple of students also shared personal stories of friends and family members who have struggled with addiction, and another said that he was writing a book about his past addiction, and passed down a few chapters, asking if Herren would give them a look. For those students to feel comfortable speaking up in front of their peers like that was amazing. One thing that I think helped them was when he talked about kids who had trouble speaking up at past presentations he had done. One girl at another school felt pressured to put her hand down, but emailed him later and told him about how she was bullied at school and was cutting herself. He wanted these kids to know that they could tell him whatever they wanted, and that everyone else had better be respectful about it.

The presentation ended up going past the time we had originally allotted for it. Someone, I think it might have been his assistant, told the administrators that Herren spoke more passionately, emotionally, and longer than he usually does, and that when he thanked the kids for being an amazing audience, that wasn’t just a throwaway line—he doesn’t usually say that to the crowds he speaks to. Students remained in the gym talking to him and asking questions for the next half hour until after school had ended. He later tweeted about our school: “Words cant describe what I just witnessed at  __________HS ... Emotional and powerful 2hrs with the kids !! THANK YOU forever grateful..” He felt a great connection to our kids, and vice versa. Of course, some kids still left this laughing and will go on making bad decisions, but some were truly affected. Herren also made sure to give us his contact info, which I passed on to my kids, and noticed many of them writing it down.

The next day, I barely did any teaching. All of my sophomore classes ended up talking about the presentation throughout the whole class. I had them circle up and discuss it. In a couple of classes where they were a little more reluctant at first to talk, I just had them go in a circle. If they weren’t sure what to say, I just asked them to comment on something in the presentation that they found powerful. A lot of them spoke very passionately about how powerful they found Herren’s talk. But some kids did have personal stories that they wanted to get off their chests—stories of family members who struggled with addiction (some of whom lost the fight), stories of themselves overcoming problems with addiction or self-mutilation. One student even cried, as did I a little bit. I had to contact some guidance counselors to follow up on some of what I heard, as I am a mandated reporter. One of the cases I had to report required immediate attention: during one class, a girl said that because of Herren’s words, one of her friends said that he no longer wanted to do drugs, but that with that taken away, he felt like he no longer had anything left to live for. I pulled her out of the room at the end of class and asked if she would give me his name, which she did. She asked me about it the next day, and I assured her that the counselors were working to get him the help that he needed. I am so proud of her for having the courage to speak up and tell on her friend. One thing I told all of the students that day was that telling on a friend who is doing drugs is not a bad thing. Yes, the friend might get mad at them, but saving their life is more important. I talked about how their teachers are not looking to just get kids in trouble and make this a “gotcha” kind of thing—we genuinely want to get them the help that they need.

Throughout the day, I really made sure to reiterate just how much I, along with the other teachers, care about our students. We may often be looked at as the people who make them do things they do want to do, but first and foremost we want to ensure that they are happy, healthy, and safe. The learning can’t happen effectively unless that other component is taken care of. I talked about how much we worry about them, and discussed the resources they have at school to get help.

In these discussions, the students also expressed a lot of frustration. There seems to be a big fear of telling their teachers and guidance counselors about their problems, and a lot of them, for various reasons, do not trust their counselors. They also are very cynical about the lasting power of Herren’s words; they said that they believe that soon enough, people who were initially inspired to change will just go back to their own ways. I asked them during the conversations if there were things we could do to change our school’s culture and ways that we could keep Herren’s message alive, as I believe that the question of "what's next?" is very important. Also, the next day, I gave the students a brief questionnaire asking what we as a school community can do to achieve those goals, and also asked what they would like their teachers and guidance counselors to do to better help them. I told them that I didn’t want our discussions to just have been nice little therapy sessions—I want them to truly have a voice, and for the faculty and students to work together on this issue. I promised that during vacation this week that I would read over those questionnaires, type up a little summary of the comments, and pass it along to the principal so that she can know what is on the students’ minds. Some of them remained cynical, while others were appreciative that I had truly listened to their concerns and wanted to make their voices heard.

I am so greatful to Mr. Herren for using his terrible experiences for something positive, and my kids were very touched by his words. The drug problem at my school and at others is not going to ever be completely eradicated; I am not so na├»ve as to believe that. But I hope that we can start to make a change. If Herren’s speech changed just a couple of lives, I will consider it a success. But I hope it does more, and starting a dialogue and keeping it going is important in determining how much of an effect it will have. And we the faculty need to do more to make sure that our students feel that they can trust us. We need to all work harder to make connections with our students so that they truly understand just how much we care about them and so that they can all feel special. I hope that this can be a turning point at my school. Perhaps that is foolishly optimistic, but nothing great was ever achieved with pessimism.

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