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How Can I Help When I Don’t Know What Help Looks Like?

So yeah…if there’s one person near you, are you doing no harm? Are you in the mental state where any interaction with that person would be neutral or beneficial? That sounds so incredibly modest. But that’s basically my deal, and I’m failing at it all the time.

George Saunders on The Ezra Klein Show, 2/19/21

B. was one of my favorites. Taught him as a freshman in American History, then got to teach him again when he was a Junior, this time in American History 2. He was one of the kids who was so open about his love of history that it made you want to do your best, to stay up late for that one extra deep dive, to make sure you were ready for whatever the class, and he, would ask.

One time, I was sitting in a barber chair with my eyes closed, waiting on Mike the barber to switch between scissors and razor, when suddenly someone’s hands covered my eyes.  Startled, I turned around, and there he was—standing there with the “Got you!” smile that always seemed to populate his face. He and his girlfriend Maya—smart as a whip, and as delightful as he—just laughed, and then said they had seen me as they were walking to lunch and couldn’t pass up the chance.  They left smiling, as if I had somehow given them something.

I happily wrote him a recommendation to Pitt.  In it, among so many other accolades, I wrote: “B. is a person comfortable in his own skin. It is something that I wish more kids could take from him…”

But I was wrong.

In 2011, he passed away.  He had been suffering from Depression, and things just got too hard for him.

But the smiles!...the activism!...the care for so many causes, close to his heart yet all around the world! How could all that mask his suffering?

More and more, that’s what we as teachers are coming to understand about our kids and our colleagues, not to mention ourselves, isn’t it?  That mental health may not be simply “having a bad day.” That it’s not someone choosing to be sad. That mental health is about heredity, and the chemicals in the body. It’s about forces that humans and science still have yet to uncover.  Sometimes it lurks, other times it shouts.

What I have learned over the last half of my career is that some people grapple with Depression early in their lives, and there are others for whom mental health becomes a concern later on in high school, like some adolescent time bomb.  Couple that with our hesitance to encourage asking for help.  Or notice the shame imposed on this thing that must feel out of control for so many people. In no attempt at insult, I’ll say that schools are struggling to keep up.

I remember attending a workshop in the mid 90s where the moderator talked about how hard it was for kids to find quiet time.  They weren’t being shown or taught how to sit quietly, find a Zen place, get some peace for a little while. She was right, of course. But that seems so antiquated as I reflect on it now, like a respected doctor of another time espousing “taking two and calling them in the morning.”

Now sleep is linked more closely with mental health, and seems to be a powerful driver for later start times. Increased staffing in schools and districts with mental health professionals is a conversation, but are the budgets there?  And then, of course, Covid, and the simultaneous deprivation of and renewed power of human connection.  Sometimes we learn the clearest lessons when things are the harshest.

Teachers’ eyes are often on kids the most, right? I’ll never forget my phone call with a Captain of Industry parent in the early 2000s.  He was generous enough to be underwriting an adventurous field trip for my Juniors, one of whom was his son. After we confirmed the details and where he should send checks, he asked me to do him a favor.  “Paul,” he said, “I’m in New York every week from Sunday ‘til Thursday.  It’s M’s birthday today, so do me a favor and tell him ‘Happy Birthday’ for me, could you?”  We hung up, but I’m sure I held the phone an extra few seconds in my hand, hoping to unhear what I had heard.  Later that morning, I  wished his son “Happy Birthday” on his behalf.

So if we assume that we see kids the most, let us take that charge, and say something when we see something. Maybe with time, training, and obvious concern, kids will save us as well.  Maybe they’ll be the ones who will shrug off their parents’ BS need to hide things from the neighbors and reach out.  Maybe kids will utilize the trust we build and ask us to get them the help they need. Maybe schools will see that mental health for teachers and students is an investment in the longer term health of a society.

And maybe we can tell our beautiful kids that if they’re going to struggle, we will help them as much as we’re able.

I think of B. often. I choose, or maybe need, to believe that when he was in my class, or social situations, that he knew that I saw him as someone who was important. I’m neither foolish nor foolhardy enough to say that was enough to help him fight the demons that eventually vanquished him.  But his memory reminds me that we don’t know what others are going through, and to paraphrase George Saunders, that we can be beneficial to them, even if we're not exactly sure how.


Paul Wright, 2011 Finalist for PA TOY, teaches Government, American Studies, and Sr. Seminar at Radnor High School in Wayne, PA. He is a member of the inaugural class of Teaching Fellows at the Alliance for Decision Education, https://www.alliancefordecisioneducation.org/teach/fellowship and is a founding partner of JumpStart Main Line College Essay Camps, www.collegeessaycamp.com. When he isn’t engaged in one of those three pursuits, it’s usually about reading, running, and maintaining the <genuinely> happy husband and father routine. He is proud to represent NNSTOY in education circles everywhere.




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