Eric Stinton: Kids Are Struggling To Cope. We Need To Help Them - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.

There are always mixed emotions returning to the last quarter of school after spring break, but this year was different. A few days before the end of spring break, a student at my school took his own life. He was in seventh grade.

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Our principal emailed the staff and teachers about what happened. She included some documents with tips on how to talk about it with our kids and ideas for things to do during class time. Many of our previous plans no longer seemed appropriate for the first day back.

I did not personally know the student who died, but since I teach seventh grade, I suspected some of my students may have known him.

I later learned they did, when local social media accounts posted details of the suicide – including pictures of the boy with his friends, my students – without getting permission from any of the families.

But when I heard the news, my thoughts immediately jumped to some of my kids: the ones who have opened up their lives and feelings to me this year, the ones coping with trauma through cutting or drinking or smoking. The ones who have either passively or explicitly communicated suicidal ideation. I felt an urgent need to message them.

Collective Grief

I asked about their breaks and said that I was excited to see them on Monday. I didn’t mention the suicide. Mostly, I was looking for proof of life. And in case they needed it, I wanted to remind them that people were thinking about them, and that they were loved.

Our school developed a crisis response plan to support the kids. Among other things, the plan included having additional counselors on campus and working with students to find ways to memorialize him.

When we returned to school, the air was heavy with collective grief. It felt vaguely dreamlike and half-real, like a fog had descended. It felt familiar.

A little less than a year ago, a close friend of mine killed himself. I remember going to work afterward: the way time crawled, how exhausting it was to complete simple tasks, the cruel hope that none of it was real. The emotional energy I usually extend to my students was siphoned into a seemingly bottomless puncture wound.

I felt angry and guilty for being unable to anticipate it. I went through all of our messages and photos and memories, torturing myself by thinking I could’ve done something to stop it. I had to forgive him for doing it, and I had to forgive myself for needing to forgive him. Then, eventually, I had to forgive myself again for moving on.

It was hard to bring myself to care about things like answering emails and text messages, or completing paperwork on time – the kind of stuff we have students do every day at school.

Student Memorial Suicide Eric Stinton
Fellow students moved a bench under a tree to create a memorial for a seventh grader who took his own life. They left leis, flowers, notes and other remembrances. Eric Stinton/Civil Beat/2022

Offering Support

I didn’t want to tell my students any of that, or that those feelings haven’t fully gone away. All I could think to say was that whatever they were feeling, it was valid.

It’s ok to be sad, angry, confused, numb. It’s normal to mourn memories that will never happen, to feel aches and longings you can’t quite name. And most importantly, whatever you’re going through, you don’t have to go through it alone. Please don’t go through it alone.

It’s been just over two years since Covid-19 upended everything. This has been the hardest continuous challenge for all of us, but for kids, the last two years comprise a much larger chunk of their conscious experience. For seventh graders, this pandemic – and all its instability and delirium – has been about a quarter of everything they can remember.

A lot of adults don’t realize just how much hurt there is in our schools. I’ve seen more self-harm, cries for help and general frustration this year than in any of the 10 years I’ve been teaching. I’ve had students break down in tears when I’ve told them I’m proud of them; they couldn’t remember anyone saying that to them before.

This has little to do with me personally. Kids are looking for a way to make sense of things, for someone to talk to. I’m just there.

We forget that school is hard in normal times. Kids have to learn multiple academic disciplines simultaneously, figure out how to manage their time and responsibilities, all while navigating hormones, relationships, family struggles and the usual adolescent insecurities that have been magnified by social media.

Trying To Make Sense Of Things

Kids have been asked to be more responsible about more things, with more immediately available distractions than people my age and older had to overcome. On top of all that, they’ve had to weather the pandemic and the additional stress trickling down from their parents and echoing around their homes.

We have no frame of reference for how to teach kids who have been through this kind of trauma. Their friendships were ripped from them, their social lives driven almost entirely online, where the adults in their lives were consistently acting like rabid maniacs. Even kids who are basically doing fine are still in classes with kids who aren’t, and that affects them.

We recognized last year that Covid changed things, and we tried to adjust accordingly. But in our push to go back to normal, we forgot that the damage from Covid is still there, and in many ways is still ongoing.

Adults have not respected what kids have gone through. A lot of kids feel on their own, distrustful of the basic childhood foundation that the grown-ups are in charge. I don’t blame them.

We’ve made decisions about them and around them, but rarely with them or including them. We use them – sometimes sincerely, sometimes cynically – to validate our own feelings. Kids aren’t dumb. They’ve noticed this, and they’ve felt it. Broadly speaking, adults have let them down.

But the tragedy our school faced does not have to end with despair. Students independently came up with the idea of wearing white on the first day back. They took the bench he always sat at and moved it under a tree, where they left leis, flowers and notes. The elementary schools that feed into our middle school sent well-wishes and snacks. Everyone understood where we should focus our attention and energy.

Tragedy has the ability to illuminate what matters most and minimize everything else. It makes it painfully obvious how much we need each other, and it cultivates a specific kind of buoyancy amid life’s squalls and torrents. Kids have an incredible resilience; it’s one of the most beautiful parts of youth.

But if we truly value our kids, we can’t use their resilience against them. We need to recognize that they are different now because of the pandemic. Their habits, personalities and needs have changed. We have to adapt to meet their needs. We can’t move backward and try to force them into a sense of normalcy that no longer exists.

We need to tell them that what they’re feeling is real, what they’re going through is hard and that we’re here to go through it with them.


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About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


Latest Comments (0)

Family first. It's what you do as parents to help nurture and educate your kids that is most important. I believe more healthy family time, play time, making sure you sit down at dinner every night time, that makes a difference. And it's tough particularly here in our economic climate where both parents need to work to make ends meet and provide a safe home. One of my more telling moments during the early stages of our state's pandemic lock down was walking with a small group of kids through barren Waikiki, to surf right out front of the Sheraton and explaining to them that they will probably never see Waikiki beach like this again. Meaning take advantage of the good even in bad times and spend time with your kids.

wailani1961 · 5 months ago

How about we let kids be kids already. Theyʻve been locked up for a couple of years already with not much socializing. Still the DOE is masking kids in the classroom but not outside. Makes no sense.

SoG · 5 months ago

This is a cultural problem. Where is today’s culture coming from? It is not coming from people gathering around campfires, or in churches, reciting the stories and fables that cultures had traditionally been built around. Today, culture largely comes from a very few corporate owned media sources whose main purpose is to make money and promote self serving ideologies. It is astonishing to me, how much people are willing to pay every month to have their kids brought up on that rot. And then they wonder why society has become so dysfunctional. "And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they made" .

Arewethereyet · 5 months ago

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