Sometimes, it’s hard to do in our society. We’ve been trained over the years that we all have an opinion, we all have a voice, and we all need to be heard. However, it’s hard to be heard when everyone is speaking over each other.
That’s why it was refreshing to just sit and listen to the members of Culpeper Youth talk to the community Wednesday night at “Teen Talks,” at Eastern View High School’s forum.
Designed as a way to have an open, honest conversation with peers and adults, the discussion was frank, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting.
As I said, it can be hard to listen. As adults, we often feel we have all the answers. We’ve been through tumultuous times, we’ve dealt with adversity, so we believe teens should listen to us and take our advice and they’ll turn out just fine.
It’s a two-way street, we need to take our own advice and listen as well.
So I sat on Wednesday, surrounded by young people and community leaders as the Culpeper Youth members addressed serious issues that were brought to light recently through a student survey at Culpeper County Public Schools.
Students talked about depression and anxiety, bullying and body image, and all of the related issues.
As parents, we know that educators see our children just as much as we do, so often times we have to rely on them to be aware of warning signs that students are suffering from anxiety or depression.
“Anxiety and depression are pervasive,” Eastern View High School counselor Michael Baird said. “As educators we talk with students everyday dealing with these issues. It’s not our job to diagnosis anxiety or depression, that’s in the hands of a licensed mental health professional. We are aware of the signs of students struggling. The best way to know if students are struggling are by making connections and building relationships.”
For Culpeper County High School junior Shifa Tewari, those connections could have helped if an educator would have listened to her with an incident she faced in the ninth grade.
She explained about how a friend was called to the office, and he handed her a knife he had snuck into school to deal with a bully who had threatened him. The incident turned to be a trap by another student, she and her friend were both discovered with the knife and she was suspended for 364 days. She ended up going to the Annex and stayed there for eight months before being let back into school.
“It was in my bag for five minutes, and those five minutes changed my life,” Tewari said. “I’m not saying what I did was right, because I know it wasn’t. In the time between the incident and going to the annex, I was thrown into a whirlpool of blame, over the top consequences and guilt. Not once did anyone ask me how I was handling things and I felt awful.”
She suffered from anxiety and depression and struggled. This is where we, as adults, need to step forward and listen, to understand and hear the students’ side of things. It was a common thread among the student speakers on Wednesday night.
When talking about bullying, Hayden Zarn talked about how she has been bullied since the time she could be without her parents at her side.
Other kids wouldn’t want to play with her and she would cry everyday after school in the hopes that she wouldn’t go back. It didn’t get any better as she progressed through school, as teachers weren’t sympathetic and kids remained cruel. At one point, she attempted to kill herself in the eighth grade, thankfully she survived and decided to live her life her way – dressing the way she wanted and listening to music that resonated with her like My Chemical Romance and Thursday.
“The bullying has stopped,” the CCHS junior said. “I still have anxiety and depression and I’m still afraid to go places in public because of the way I’ve been treated in the past.”
I’ve been out of high school for 20 years, and while not on the level of some of these students, I’ve had experiences with bullying and being put down. I’ve watched as these students have grown up, thinking it’s better now than it was when I was in school – but it’s not. They still deal with the same issues and feel the same way I did – lost, confused, hopeless.
As a community, we can help. We can listen. We don’t have to tell them what to do, how to do it or chastise them for their mistakes.
We can simply listen, offer a hug and be supportive.
Wednesday’s “Teen Talks” was a step in the right direction. Nearly 100 community members came out to hear the concerns, praise these students for speaking up and make connections. If we truly want our youth to be our future, we need to protect and help them.
We can do that by listening.