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Another inevitability in the wake of a gun-related tragedy is the expression of the idea that we should focus our prevention efforts not on guns, but on mental illness. Now, I have no problem with addressing the issue of mental illness, although I don't see why we can't do both. However, my experience as a teacher suggests at least a small reason why we have so much difficulty addressing mental illness in young people, thus allowing it to fester unchecked into adulthood.

I taught high school English for 13 years. During that time I had more than my share of students with moderate to severe personality disorders. High school in America is a lot more like a Larry Clark film than people would like to believe. True, a lot of teenagers grow out of it, and teachers do become jaded after a while. But I had a lot of kids in my class over the years who I sincerely thought at the time might be mentally ill.

If you teach long enough, you're bound to say the wrong thing to, or about, a student from time to time, without really meaning to. I had plenty of foot-in-mouth moments over the years. The worst of these, back in the late '90s when I was a second-year teacher, still haunts me to this day; an automatic, boilerplate response to misbehavior that an inexperienced teacher might use, but just happened to be the exact wrong thing to say to that particular student at that particular time, and for which I found myself apologizing profusely and mellifluously in front of the entire class within seconds after I said it.

Years later in a different school I had another student whose behavior really troubled me. Like a lot of teenagers, he seemed to lack impulse control, empathy, manners, and self-awareness. He would make random noises during class, such as by tapping the chain on his pant-leg against a metal table, and when I or the other students would ask him to stop he would say "No," keep making the noise and burst into hysterical laughter. One time he came in and refused to take his seat, backing away and shrieking, "There's bugs all over the table!! I ain't sittin' there, there's bugs all over the table!!" I looked at the table and saw a couple of ink stains and a clump of black thread.

On Open School night I was describing this behavior to the student's older sister, who was also a teacher, so I thought I had a sympathetic ear and perhaps conversed a little too casually and candidly. [CLARIFICATION: In the NYC public schools, "Open School" refers to parent-teacher conferences. It's not an open house-like, communal event. This was a private conference between me and the sister in lieu of the parent, with no one else present.] What I did was use a word to describe the behavior that, while not offensive or even really inappropriate, was nonetheless a bit hyperbolic. I won't say what it was because I don't want to distract from my main point, but it was clear that I was characterizing the behavior, not the student. [To be precise, I said, "There's simply no reason for this behavior. It's inexplicable, it's bizarre, it's [X]."] The sister promptly reported to the mother, who was with another teacher at the time, that I had called the student [X], and the two of them went straight to my supervisor and demanded that the child be removed from my class and that I be disciplined or fired.

I'm not trying to excuse what I said or imply that I wasn't wrong to say it, because I may well have been. As I said, I had plenty of these moments. But my point is this: As soon as this happened, the entire conversation with respect to this student became about What That Teacher Said, not How Can We Help This Kid? The issue was not what this child's problem might be or how we, the school or the family, should address it; the only thing being discussed by anyone, including the parent and school administrators, was how and to what degree I should be punished for calling this student [X], which I really hadn't done in the first place.

One of the reasons I got out of teaching was because I came to realize after a while that if you're a teacher, you can't tell kids the truth about themselves, and you can't tell parents the truth about their kids. It seemed that as a society we'd become more interested in hanging teachers than in helping kids. It's a broad stroke, I know, and I was fortunate in my last school that, at least most of the time, I could be honest with kids and parents about the former's ability and performance, and found that more often than not they appreciated it. And none of this is to say that you don't still have to be diplomatic and avoid foot-in-mouth moments that can easily be misinterpreted and get you in trouble.

This incident stands out in my mind not because I felt I was treated unfairly or wrongfully accused. It stands out because this was a kid who probably needed help, beyond what I or the school was able to provide; a kid whose mental health was at least in question and could have benefited from his family being aware of that. But any possibility of getting him that help, figuring out what he needed or even recognizing that he needed anything, went completely out the window while everyone occupied themselves with What That Teacher Said and How That Teacher Should Be Punished.

I don't know how often it happens that teachers keep their impressions of students' potential mental health issues to themselves, for fear of becoming the focus of the wrong conversation. Teachers are under a lot of pressure nowadays to always find positive things to say to and about kids, give them the highest grades and the highest praise, and avoid criticism of any kind that might make the student feel bad or the parent inclined to take action. I just think that nipping mental illness in the bud might be a little more important.


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10:19 AM PT: Wow. Thanks for the rescue, and all the recs.

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Originally posted to GrafZeppelin127 on Mon Dec 17, 2012 at 06:29 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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