#shatterthetaboo: Time to Talk About Mental Health & Opioid Addiction

The following is a guest post written by my dear friend & colleague Morgan. We’ve shared a lot this year: a classroom, ideas for several creative projects, and the grief of losing a family member.

Morgan lost her brother in February from a Fentanyl overdose. In an effort to #shatterthetaboo around mental health and opioid addiction, here are the words Morgan penned about her family’s experience as well as a video of the eulogy she delivered at her brother’s memorial:

On February 9th, 2017, my 27-year old brother Jamie died from a Fentanyl overdose.

Jamie struggled with mental health for the last 10 years of his life and he was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

At some point, he became an opioid user. Opioid addiction is often deadly because you need more and more to feel high each time. Eventually, he started to use heroin.

We assume that when he died, he thought he was using heroin, but he was in fact using Fentanyl. It is 100x more potent than morphine, and 50x more potent than heroin. When you die from Fentanyl, there is very little chance of resuscitation. You die almost immediately. It looks almost identical to heroin.

Jamie was an advocate for his mental health struggles for a long time. He wanted to champion his diseases; he did not shy away from telling people about them. However, he never divulged to us his battle with addiction. Being that addiction is a family disease, we were in complete denial and couldn’t see the truth right in front of our faces.

Perhaps if the stigma didn’t exist so heavily around addiction, he would have come to us. Maybe he would still be alive.

After his death, many friends have come to us with similar stories of mental health and addiction struggles. In the light of the opioid crisis, it has never been more important to shatter the taboo. To see just how bad the crisis is, take a look at these graphs: https://goo.gl/SgsfMo

As I said in my eulogy, “If you are struggling, if your family member or your friend is struggling, tell someone. Reach out. Ask how can I help. Suggest resources, share experiences. Just show up. If you know someone who is clearly an addict, speak up. Tell their mother or their siblings. Tell their friends. Tell someone.”

I miss my brother with every breath that I take.

We can not let this continue to happen. We have to #shatterthetaboo and build a community of people who help each other through this crisis.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, the resources below may be of some help to you:

https://www.nami.org/
https://www.ncadd.org/
https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help

You can also reach out to local health providers, as laws are changing daily in regards to opioid treatment, prescriptions for suboxone, and safe injection sites.

You don’t have to go through this alone.

Click below to see Morgan’s powerful eulogy:

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Fmorgxw%2Fvideos%2F10200768661038567%2F&show_text=0&width=560

The Spirit of Mr. Rogers

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Photo credit: Salon.com

The other day, during indoor recess, I felt cold in my classroom, so I decided to put on a zip-up sweater. I happened to be standing over a table of students who were playing a card game of which I had never heard. Intrigued, but also cold, I put on my sweater while monitoring the game. I pulled the zipper all the way up to my chin and then artfully zipped it down in the style of Mr. Rogers, my favorite television neighbor.

“I’m Mr. Rogers,” I declared. This declaration was met by blank stares and it quickly dawned on me that none of them knew about Mr. Rogers. They’d of course heard of his popular puppet Daniel Striped Tiger because of the cartoon show, but Mr. Rogers was out of their frame of reference.

When I gushed about this realization to my colleague, who was also in the room, she responded, “To be fair, I never really watched that show either.” Even twenty-somethings aren’t as familiar with Mr. Rogers as I thought they were.

Of course, taking a step back, I realize that it’s not all that surprising that today’s generation of kids doesn’t know about Mr. Rogers. He died before they were born and most PBS stations stopped airing the show regularly. While it’s understandable that most kids today don’t know anything about the beloved TV man, it’s a shame.

Yes, there were and still are many children’s TV shows with positive messages, but few shared their messages the way Mr. Rogers did—by looking children directly in the eye and telling them they mattered and were loved just the way they were.

I’ve written before about all of the important life lessons imparted by Mr. Rogers and I want to know who is doing this today? Where does the spirit of Mr. Rogers live on?

According to the Atlantic, it’s in advice columns because that’s “where adult problems are considered with dignity, and where feelings are taken seriously.” A Reddit user believes  that it’s Neil deGrasse Tyson who cares the torch of Mr. Rogers’ spirit because he’s brilliant and kind and talks about living to make other’s lives better each day.

Just the other day, I came across an article in the Huffington Post about a Massachusetts teacher who created a music video called “Black Is Beautiful” for her female students who often expressed their dismay about their appearances. We need more of this kind of positivity for our children and ourselves.

Who else is encouraging children to be curious on a day-to-day basis? Who else continually reaffirms to them that they are great just the way you are? I believe that is the responsibility of all of us to carry on the spirit of Mr. Rogers.

 

[And now, because I couldn’t help myself, a video of my favorite Mr. Rogers Remix.]

 

A Year End Reflection

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Goal setting, 1994-style.

The end of a year inevitably brings reflections, varying top 10 lists of the year’s best and worst in every category imaginable, pop culture trivia games, and the ritual taking stock in your life followed by setting goals for the new year that beg to be broken by February.

Instead of coming up with some deep end-of-the-year reflection, I thought I’d share a different kind of end-of-the year reflection; one I wrote in the sixth grade. I came across this recently in a box of my things that I’ve haven’t sifted through in over a decade. I found this piece in a composition book that was passed from grade to grade that was meant to be an exemplar of the work we had done that year. Though I was only twelve when I wrote this it resonates for some reason at the close of another year. (Author’s note: the names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

Sixth Grade-The Final Year In Elementary School 

The year has been good to me. I entered sixth grade on August 29th, 1994. It was hot and I sat down in a group with Tara, Andrea, and Ellen. I remember thinking that the room was unfamiliar. I stared at the walls, seeing what was on them.

I had trouble making friends because people had changed. I then began to hang out with Leidy, Rachel, and Anna in about October.

By November, Andrea started to hang out with us. We all did a play in December for a wonderful party (Christmas) our class had. It was the beginning of our wonderful friendships that we have kept this year.

We got first grade buddies who are wonderful. My first grade buddy is Amelia and she is a wonderful little girl. She is kind and very cute. She has character.

Andrea and I had become closer friends throughout the year. Best friends in fact. We’ve had our share of hardships, but we’re still best friends.

Now the year is coming to an end (or close) and there is nothing left to learn. Our teacher keeps on saying that the class will never be together anymore. I used to just not listen to that but now I’m sad. Very sad. I could even cry. I might later, but not now. I say I want to leave Atwater, but the truth is, I don’t want to. I’m finally going to close the doors on Atwater, on my elementary years.

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The assignment, which never made sense to me until I became a teacher.

We Are What We’ve Been Waiting For

img_0997As I went to bed late Tuesday evening, realizing that Donald Trump would actually become the next president of the United States and no, this wasn’t some horrendous nightmare from which I would magically wake in the morning, I thought to myself, how on Earth am I going to get up and explain this to the children I teach? My students, who are mainly low-income minorities (many of the Muslim faith), have expressed their deep concerns and fear about a Trump presidency throughout the last year. While they expressed the fear of being targeted on the street and the fear of having family members deported, I continually reassured them that they had nothing to worry about. There is no way anyone who talks like that would ever be elected president, I had said to them, sometimes while wiping up their actual tears.

There is, in fact, a way that someone who talks like that could be elected president and that way is white privilege. My own white privilege blinded my ability to see that a Trump presidency was not only plausible, but also highly likely. In hindsight, I see how I should’ve taken his campaign much more seriously and actively spoken out much earlier.

img_1004So, when I woke up on Wednesday morning with deep dread in my heart, I asked myself: what kind of person would I want to see today, on this day after the election? Someone who’s trying to fight back tears or someone who is optimistic and unafraid to face the brutal reality of what’s to come? I opted for the latter option.

I didn’t want my students to feel any worse than they already did and as kids absorb the feelings of their environments, I wanted to them to absorb feelings of hope. As they entered the classroom, I played uplifting music including my favorite Bob Marley song, “Three Little Birds.” I did this not to trivialize their feelings, but to provide the hope that some how, some way every little thing would be all right.

We had our students write in their journals and their responses moved us to tears. Why do people hate me, one child asked? I guess slavery never really ended, another one wrote. We talked about how the biggest demographic that supported Trump was white people without a college degree. Several of them laughed out loud as if I just given the punch line of a joke. Good thing we’re in school and going to college, they said.

As the day progressed, our kids said they were starting to feel a little better. After much discussion, one girl mentioned that she simply wasn’t going to let someone like Donald Trump get her down. Another found solace in the knowledge that checks and balances will make it challenging for some of Trump’s proposed policies to become law.

img_1003I guess you could say this day was like any other day at school; we were just teachers guiding our students through the world’s uncertainties. Except on that first day post-election and all the days going forward, our work together feels  more immediate because we are on the brink of a presidency that legitimizes hatred. Who’s going to speak out against this hatred if not us? No one. Who’s going to teach our children how to stand up against the injustices they will absolutely face if not us? No one. Who’s going to help our children navigate through these times so that they can do better when they’re grown if not us? No one. As President Obama said when he was a senator campaigning for office, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek,” and I’ve never felt that more than now.

The evidence that a Trump presidency will legitimize hatred already surrounds us. As outgoing Senate Minorty Leader Harry Reid stated, “The election of Donald Trump has emboldened the forces of hate and bigotry in America.” Already the media have cited examples of Trump supporters harassing women and minorities in the days following the election. On Wednesday, two Babson College fraternity brothers drove to Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton’s alma mater and all-women’s college, and waved a Trump flag around campus while allegedly harassing and yelling racial slurs at students. On Friday, a Baylor University student said a student walked into her while she was walking on campus and then called her the n-word all in the name of making America great again. England has seen a similar backlash since Brexit with a reported increase in racial crimes.

Or how about the fact that Vice-President Elect Mike Pence has a bigoted track record? Our future Vice-President signed a bill in Indiana that said businesses could refuse service to gays and lesbians based on religious reasons, required that all aborted fetuses have burials or be cremated, advocated for the teaching of creationism in schools, and also advocated for the use of public funds for conversion-therapy, which is an anti-gay therapy that seeks to change one’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. This man, who also thinks smoking doesn’t kill, will be governing our country.

Is this real life?

The sad truth is that this is real life and it has been for quite some time. But now, I will no longer stay silent.

I’m reminded of the poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöller , “First they came…” in regards to the Nazis rise to power in Germany and the lack of a response from German intellectuals. It feels applicable in these times:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 
img_0999Going forward, I urge you to show up and speak up. Yesterday, I attended a love rally in Washington Square Park and marched with hundreds of others to Union Square in support of Black Lives Matter, the planet, gay marriage, Muslims, a woman’s right to choose what’s right for her body, and refugees. Walking up 6th Avenue, my heart raced several times when I saw cheers from onlookers and honks from supporters in their cars. I was reminded that there are still so many people in this world who believe that diversity is what truly makes America great.

If there’s a silver lining to be found in this election, it’s that now I feel a camaraderie amongst strangers where I haven’t before. I’ve seen and engaged in conversation with strangers at the bodega and in the subway when before we would’ve simply kept to ourselves.

As we embrace the inevitable Trump presidency, I hope all of us, regardless of our political affiliations, will be the ones we’ve been waiting for and boldly speak out against bigotry and social policies that unfairly target already marginalized groups.

I know I will.

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It’s Just A Little Crush

Whenever I go home for vacation (as I am doing right now), I always read through my old diaries. I started keeping a diary in first grade (1990) and continued to do so fairly regularly until I was well out of college. While some people might shutter at the idea of rereading their past and uncovering old demons, I relish in the opportunity to read my old thoughts. Not only are they wildly entertaining, but they remind me what it was like to actually be in middle school and show how I’ve evolved over time (or not).

As I entered upper elementary school, then middle and high school, my diaries became the place where I confessed my deep feelings for basically any boy with whom I made eye contact. Like any other adolescent, I had multitudes of crushes and used my diary as a vehicle to lament over them and record our every interaction regardless of how trivial it was (it was always trivial).

When looking at how I wrote about my crushes, several common themes emerged that reiterated the fact that I had no idea what to do with a crush besides ignore him and then gush about him in my diary later. You know, standard operating procedure.

Below I’ve arranged some excerpts from these diaries by the common theme they share. All the names have been changed and if you think I’m talking about you it is purely coincidental (or not).

Theme #1: I’m too young and scared to know how to act around boys I like. What do I do?!

  • April 12th, 1994
    Dear Diary,
    This is really important! Matthew and Andrew asked me out! Oh my! I’m too young and scared! What should I do? This is so scary! If I tell my parents they’ll kill me. Andrew said, “I love you!” [expletive]
    P.S. I got a new library card.
    P.P.S. I have to talk to Iris!
  • August 16th, 1995
    Dear Diary,
    I really like Chris and Toby. They are so cool! I want to go out with one of them. I wouldn’t mind going out with Lance either. I’m afraid to say something.
  • March 13th, 1996
    Dear Diary,
    I want to dance with Michael at the next dance. I’m scared to dance with someone. How close do you get to them? Who leads the dance (slow dance)?
  • March 20th, 1996
    Dear Diary,
    Today I saw Michael after school. I made eye contact! I’m scared to look at him for a long period of time.
  • June 13th, 1996
    Dear Diary,
    When we came out from the baseball field, I saw Edward! I freaked out and my friends saw so I ran away! My friends yelled, “Hey! Edward’s here! He’s leaving!” Edward looked! I was so scared!

Theme #2: Looking for love in all the wrong places, or I like you purely based on the orange pants you wear.

  • March 6th, 1996
    Dear Diary,
    Michael and Casey broke up. She dumped him! Michael has been dumped by all of his girlfriends! I want to go out with Michael so bad. It would be really weird. But it would be awesome!
  • October 6th, 1999
    Dear Diary,
    Archer is so fine! He wore his orange pants from Abercrombie today. I love it when he wears those pants. He looks so fine! He is eye candy. I want to go to a dance with him…maybe someday. Whatever.
  • Februray 7th, 2000
    Dear Diary,
    The dance was fun and Jason was a good date. He is really sweet and he likes me, but I don’t think I’d ever go out with him. The age thing isn’t a problem, but I’m looking for something else—someone bigger and with more life experience.
  • June 24th, 2000
    Dear Diary,
    Hank asked me who my latest thing was and I said Peter and I was like, “I know, it’s horrible. But I can’t help it. He’s not even that great of a person to like.” Hank said that if he was a girl he would think that Peter was an [expletive].

Theme #3: Meaningless interactions feel like everything.

  • March 12, 1996
    Dear Diary,
    Today I was walking through the halls and I saw Michael. We made eye contact and when he saw me, he stopped talking for a second.
  • November 5th, 1996
    Dear Diary,
    In science, I took the test in the hall. Peter was right next to me! He said, “You can’t copy off of me.” Then I said, “Then, you can’t copy off of me.” Then he said, “just kidding” and I said, “Just kidding.” The first question was about power. He figured out the answer. We both worked together. IT WAS SO COOL! I made sure I looked in his eyes. He has pretty eyes. I told him that I thought we’d do okay because I got 5 points for rewording the question. He laughed.
  • October 3, 1999
    Dear Diary,
    I really like Archer. He’s REALLY HOT, he’s nice and he drives a nice car. One time, I dropped all this change and he picked it up for me. One time long ago, there was this announcement how I was now junior class president. He’s like, “so how does it feel to be president?” and he smiled. I was so happy! He laughs at what I say sometimes.
  • May 6th, 2000
    Dear Diary,
    Yesterday while I was lifting weights, Peter said hi to me. I know it’s not a big deal if he says hi, but when you like a guy it is a big deal if he says hi.
  • May 21st, 2000
    Dear Diary,
    I enjoyed watching the musical. All of us girls in the pit orchestra are in love with Eric. He’s cute and his voice is awesome! After the show, I went on stage with Alexa and I wanted to talk to Eric, but I was too scared. He walked by and I was like, “Good job, Eric.” He turned around and then said thanks and gave me a big hug. He said he was glad I liked it. He said, thanks and I said, sure. And then he said good job to me. I was so ecstatic that he gave me a hug! He’s so hot!

Theme #4: I’m simply paralyzed by my love for you.

  • January 27th, 1999
    Dear Diary,
    There are four people that I go numb when I see because they are so hot: James, Rick, George Clooney, and Joshua Jackson.
  • March 6th, 1999
    Dear Diary,
    I was at Libby’s house and Liam called and I heard his voice and I was all happy. I got really nervous when I found out that he might be able to do something with us. I get so stressed out about it. Ugh! I like him so much!
  • March 12th, 1999
    Dear Diary,
    Liam came to school to eat with us and brought us pizza! I almost died! It was awesome! But, I felt kind of awkward. I felt distant from him, but I think it was me! I felt scared to talk to him because I felt that no matter what I said to him he would think that I was trying to come on to him.
  • May 21st, 2000
    Dear Diary,
    The cast party was fun last night. I wore my fun shirt. Eric was there. He was talking to Katrina when I was with her and I was speechless. I was in awe of his fineness. I was in awe of him.
  • June 24th, 2000
    Dear Diary,
    Today I was at Hank’s house with Tina helping out at Hank’s mom’s party. It was fun. Hank had Peter over for a little bit and I was so ecstatic! He is so hot. But anyways, he came in and I said hi, but I didn’t really feel that he acknowledged that I was there. I mean he sort of did but of course I felt all insecure. I hate that. It’s horrible. And I get so nervous and I never know what to say and I never act like myself. And that sucks even more because then he can’t even see my fine personality.

If you’re still reading this far, bless you! As I’m no longer an adolescent I once was, I’m happy to say I’m not too young or scared to know how to interact with boys I like. That doesn’t mean I don’t have the occasional bout with love paralysis or fall for a guy solely based on his orange pants, but when confronted head on with a crush, I no longer take off and run. That’s real progress.

Please Stop Saying that Kids Don’t Read Anymore By Andrea Koleck

A great post written by my friend and colleague about how our own generational bias impacts how we view children’s literacy.

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The generation gap is an American institution. Every generation experiences it and technology exacerbates it. We don’t talk about the impact the generation gap has on our perception of children nearly enough. Specifically, we need to start talking about how our generational bias is impacting our perception of literacy.

We think of the classics as the books that have been loved for generations. And we think of it as a tragedy if these books aren’t being cherished by new generations. But we create readers or nonreaders by what we provide. They might not care about the Babysitters Club, and aspiring author and tomboy Jo March might not speak to your favorite 12 year old. Some kids need Harry Potter in their lives, but some will reject the entire wizarding world. All of this is fine. The very idea of a “good” book is subjective.  And honestly, as a collective group…

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The Perfect Table, or How to Dine Out

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The perfect table.

I follow a few simple rules when dining out. First, only dine in places serving cuisine and dishes that I couldn’t make myself. Second, as my good friend puts it, if your meal is under three hours or courses, you’re doing it wrong. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, be the perfect table.

When I worked in the restaurant industry, we referred to “the perfect table” as one that coursed out their meal and ordered a bottle of wine with every course. There are several variations on this theme, but generally the perfect table starts out with a round of cocktails before looking at the menu. Then, they share a bottle of wine with their appetizers. Following appetizers is the main course and another bottle of wine or two. Lastly, dessert arrives along with a round of after-dinner drinks.

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The Champagne and oyster course.

I love starting off the meal by sharing a half-bottle of champagne with my dining companion and a dozen oysters. If I’m dining Italian, then the meat and cheese board is a must. From here, depending on my appetite, I could go into a soup or salad course, or I might dive into the entrée. Whatever the choice, there will always be a new bottle of wine to pair with the meal– a substantial red if I’m eating a meatier fish, steak, or hearty pasta; white if it’s lobster or a lighter fish. I’m partial to an unoaked Chardonnay or an Albarino. Depending on the number of guests I’m dining with or how quickly we sip our wine, a second bottle will be ordered for the table.

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Pass the Courvoisier.

Finally, after several hours of libations and good cheer, time for what is perhaps my favorite part of the meal: the after-dinner drink. Nothing complements a delightful evening of food and friends quite like a snifter of Courvoisier. Some reach for the port, others a Brandy Alexander, but me—I love cognac.

With there being thousands of dining options in New York, I want my dining experience to be just that—an experience. I want the restaurant where I dine to grant me access to food and wine that might otherwise be out of my reach. If not, there’s no point in eating out. While I don’t dine in this manner every weekend, I do strive to be the “perfect table” at least once or twice a month. Of course, being the sensible New Yorker that I [almost] am, I always budget for such meals.