By Theresa Puskar –
Westmont High School – May 14th, 2018
Today’s teens are exposed to so much more than we were at their age. Due to the incessant deluge of videos showing horrific world events on the news and social media, along with the polarization of our politics and the increased incidents of violence in the schools and other influences, they experience a greater sense of hopeless and stress as they try to stay afloat in a greasy cesspool of pain and fear. Yet, I note that many of them are so much more self-aware than I was at their age.
As I mentioned in my February article, I spent this past year substitute teaching kindergarteners to high school seniors. It has been a fascinating journey, and for the most part, I have thoroughly enjoyed it.
As the school year comes to an end, I reflect upon it with great introspection and awe. When I think of my life during my own tender school years, I remember so much. It’s funny how as I age I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, but I can remember every detail of my childhood experiences! The most intense display of fear I witnessed back then happened on my first day of school. As I entered the kindergarten classroom, I recall watching a boy clutching onto the classroom door handle as if he were holding on for dear life. He was screaming in terror, exposing all of his resistance to entering the portal into the new world of independence. I also recall running out of my third-grade classroom in tears, as I watched the class bully tear a fellow student into shameful bits with his emotional abuse – the cruelty was overwhelming! Fast forward to high school, where we played euchre and had food fights during lunch hour. The greatest horror I remember was being completely grossed out by the unexpected chunk of tuna fish salad that I bit into as I finished off my home-baked oatmeal cookie after a food fight. We had the occasional unobtrusive school fire drill. They were a mere nuisance, but there were no intruder drills, no lockdowns and no impending fear of someone letting loose during lunch break with an assault rifle. Life seems so much more burdensome these days.
One of the programs that the schools have to promote a greater sense of community, security and encouragement is Snowball. This program starts in grade school and is continued through to high school. It was the inspiration behind this month’s writer, Emily Grudka. She wrote her poignant and powerful poem, The Wrong Decision, after attending an Operation Snowball weekend retreat with her classmates. When I asked whether she had faced teen suicide firsthand, she and her girlfriend turned and looked into each other’s eyes; the subtext which read, “You have no idea, lady!” I didn’t push the discussion further, but I see that the threat of teen suicide has vastly increased. I really love Emily’s poem, as she reminds those who might be considering suicide that their lives do, in fact, matter:
The Wrong Decision
By Emily Grudka
Don’t tell me that if you killed yourself
Nobody would miss you.
My world would never be the same,
Even if you say countless times that it would.
Don’t tell me that your mother
Would not come home from work every day crying her eyes out.
Because she knows you’ll never come home from school.
Wishing she took you home from the hospital instead of the local cemetery.
Don’t tell me your father
Wouldn’t work night shifts and long hours
To get his mind off the fact you’re gone forever.
He will try to comfort your mother but nothing will ease the pain.
Don’t tell me your friends
Wouldn’t stay up every single night hating themselves.
And for never knowing that you were suffering all this time and they never noticed.
When they hear about your death at school, all eyes will be on them.
Don’t tell me your sister
Wouldn’t tear up every time she sat at the dinner table
Knowing that you’ll never be there again sitting in your usual spot.
Or wake up every morning upset because you won’t fight about who showers first.
Don’t tell me your brother
Wouldn’t be able to focus in class.
He would get even worse grades
Because he thought you were the smart sibling.
Even if you think you don’t matter
There will always be someone there to support you.
So, don’t tell me the earth would still rotate if you were gone.
You’re worth it.
Thank you for your insights and for reaching out to those who may be considering suicide, Emily. Your heartfelt beaconing may just save some lives! In response to the anxiety that I have noted among the high school students, I started a program to support them. Each week we met to discuss the stressors in their lives, along with tools they can use to integrate meditation, visualization and calming techniques into their routine. I have been most impressed with the students who have spent time with me, especially those who were serving detentions. I started each session, asking the students what the “tensions” were at the root of their detention, and how I could support them to “de-tense” their lives. Many of these teens were considered “problem” students, and yet, as I spoke with them, I noted a candor, honesty and self-reflection that was inspiring among many of them.
Those of us who work in the media have a responsibility towards our youth and their future. I believe we are currently failing them!
What I have noted for several years is that fear sells, and because it does, the public is bombarded with it. Whether it be the news, social media, television or movies, so much of the messages today are based on the negativity that exists in the world. So many movies are about a potential Armageddon. Recently I viewed two of the latest box office “super-hero” hits, The Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. This is not a genre I am terribly interested in, but I acquiesced to the desires of my family.
As I sat and watched, I looked at the movies from a sociological perspective. I asked myself, “Why is America hungry for this type of movie? In it, the world is falling apart and superheroes use their superpowers to save the day.” As I reflected on youth and their sense of anxiety and hopelessness, I hypothesize that these movies provide them with a sense of hope. Then I wondered, “Do they believe that it takes super-human powers to overcome the obstacles they face in the world today? If so, will they be able to find that power within themselves?” From what I’ve seen this past year, I have faith in them. In my sessions, I encourage them to focus on what brings them joy. I take them through exercises in which they see themselves as the heroes in their own epic life journeys, acknowledging themselves for what they have already overcome. I am excited that they will have the right to vote in the next election, and I find many of them to be exceptional individuals. Perhaps they are the superheroes we have all been waiting for.
Theresa Puskar is an author, performer, minister, inspirational speaker and motivational audiobook producer. With over 25 years of experience in media and communications, she has worn many hats in the industry. She is the author of the “Terri” children’s book series, which focuses on a variety of emotional and social development issues for children, ages five to nine. She has received accolades for her recent autobiographical solo show, Beauty, Bollywood and Beyond and looks forward to performing it in New York in October. A powerful inspirational speaker and transition leader, Theresa edu-tains her audiences, by touching hearts and minds in a way that is engaging, joyful and life-affirming. Visit www.TheresaPuskar.com.