I posted on Instagram about the trip my daughter, Isley, and I made to Lawrence, Kansas for a play her former kindergarten teacher wrote based on an experience Isley had with bullying in 7th grade. I want to provide more context to that experience first and then provide some facts and resources related to suicide prevention. I’m hoping the connection between the two will make sense as we work through it.
I know it’s hard to read but it says “Zoe G is a bitch and she is ugly Doanta F said so with those ugly ass long socks.” This was found on a bathroom wall in the middle school and Isley and Zoe knew immediately who had written it. Zoe was hurt, of course, and the girls considered a variety of responses. Ultimately, though, we decided to wear long socks for the remainder of the school year.
Isley and Zoe bought tall socks and we posted about it with a few hashtags. Former students of mine shared the story with their students who then joined in the tall socks movement. One of my former students who is now an extraordinary teacher in Brooklyn sent a box of tall socks for the girls to share with classmates who wanted to participate.
We started getting pics of long socks from California, Kansas, Virginia, North Carolina (one of our sock supporters was in MY prek class when she was 4!!), and more. Zoe felt supported and seen and the message was spreading far beyond our little St. Louis suburb. We kept the long socks going until the last day of school and eventually even the girl who wrote the message came to school in long socks. Seriously.
It was an opportunity to create community from hurt and we took it. However, it did not address the root causes of the hurt nor did we have any luck in motivating the school counseling staff to support the learner who wrote the message to better understand how she was feeling in the school environment. As we often say, hurt people hurt people. Bullying is not a natural and inherent part of educational spaces – kids need our support in navigating big and difficult emotions. Why aren’t we actively and proactively providing those supports?
Fast forward a year and Isley’s amazing kindergarten teacher (middle school theater elective teacher also because of course she is) . . . Ms. Fewins and Isley connected when Isley was in her kindergarten class and they’ve remained close. The best teachers are like that – teachers for life. Ms. Fewins wrote a script loosely based on the tall socks experience and her middle schoolers edited and revised it, eventually selecting it for their spring play. We knew we had to be there for it.
As soon as we got into town, we were greeted with LONG SOCKS!
The cast told a powerful story of the social dynamics and challenges kids are facing and their individual and collective struggles to fit in AND be true to themselves. We know what adolescence brings. Rather than saying “middle school is so hard,” how about we actively work on providing kids the space to work through their emotions, strategies for navigating the difficulties, and opportunities to practice mistake making and forgiveness granting?
Ms. Fewins helped us bring the experience into the light again and to reflect on what we learned from it. Isley and I continue to feel that we didn’t do enough to help the girl who wrote the message – she has gone on to continue hurtful behavior toward Zoe. Rather than punish “bullies” after the damage is done, we should push in as much social emotional support for kids throughout their educational experience. We leave many many kids with very limited problem solving skills to continue doing harm to themselves and others. In fact, in schools we often pile on to those kids who need the most support creating amplified feelings of isolation. Restorative practices are critical for interrupting this cycle.
The mental health of our learners must be on the forefront. Rates of suicidality, suicide attempts, and deaths by suicides are all increasing and are present in very young children.
Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among children and adolescents ages 10-24. Nearly one of every eight children between the ages 6 and 12 has suicidal thoughts.
That’s multiple people in your class and in mine. There are no restrictions to who is affected – across genders (girls attempt suicide more than boys but boys die by suicide more than girls), across race, across ethnicity. We do know that LGBTQ+ kids who do not see themselves in others are at increased risk of suicidality. Please know and be familiar with the Trevor Project resources if you teach kids!!
We have a moral and ethical obligation to take loving care of all of our kids.
We teach college students and we are so fortunate to have these conversations with students pretty regularly. I say fortunate because we are fortunate to be a resource and to be trusted and to be able to connect our students with resources. Unfortunately, far too many faculty are not considering the many and heavy demands on our students. In fact, far too often, they’re piling on unnecessarily. We know our courses are not the only or most important thing students are grappling with. We know our deadlines are, for the most part, arbitrary. We accept our students are humans with full lives and our responsibility is to partner with them in their learning. (More on that another day)
We will keep talking about this but I wanted to share a compilation of national resources so you have vetted places to go when you need them.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1.800.273.8255
You have local resources as well. If you have a resource you want to share, send it to us and we will add it as well as post it on our social media. We can provide a space of hope and of care for each and every kid.