Five Walks: Walk One
Five Walks: Walk One
For every human being, life consists of endless ups and downs. We can never be ready for the shocks and problems life throws at us. But we can learn a clear way to approach and handle problems when they arise.
You have probably noticed by now that people have bad things happen in their lives. Some are really obvious big things like getting really sick, or someone close dying, or parents splitting up. But sometimes the hard stuff is smaller, not so easy to see.
Hating school, being hassled or bullied, a brother or sister who is driving you insane. Some teenagers are struggling with personal issues like feeling they don’t belong anywhere or feeling they have no real friends. Maybe they hate the way they look.
Okay, now try this for me. Think about the parts of your life right now that you are the most happy with. Try not to say “nothing”. Take a moment. Think about who you are now and how that is different from when you were eight or ten. Some things have changed. Certainly your body has. So has your mind and the way you think about the world. Family and friends have probably changed too. Most people around your age are going through all sorts of changes. Some of these changes are beyond your control. That is often the cause of frustration or depression. You feel helpless. But there are quite a lot of things you can do something about, and this is really the focus of this walk.
What I want to share with you is a simple strategy which I am sure will help you. It might even change your life. It is going to take me about two pages to explain this, so stick with me, and we’ll have something solid to talk about very shortly.
First, an example, straight out of my own experience. A few years ago I was teaching a girl in Year 9, I’ll call her Deb. Deb was what teachers like to call “bright”; but she was also what I would call “dark”. She was smart, good at Drama and many of her subjects, and clearly hating school most of the time. She mucked around with a few kids but didn’t seem to have any close friends. This was made worse by the fact that she was often absent, and her mother started to speak to people at the school about the fact that Deb was becoming a “school refuser”. You will know kids like this at your school. Maybe you are a bit like this yourself.
Now I tried a few times to have a chat with Deb. But she wasn’t very open with me. Many teenagers seem to lose their trust or possibly their respect for adults. Or maybe they just don’t think we can understand what they are going through. I hope that by the time you’re finished these five walks with me, you have come to realize that some adults can help. Not because we are smarter or older or better, just because we have walked down these roads many, many times before.
One time when I was sitting with Deb trying to have a talk, I spotted some band-aids across her upper wrist. It occurred to me at that moment that Deb always wore long sleeved tops, even in the hottest summer weather. I wondered whether she had some scars she was embarrassed about, or maybe a tattoo. When I asked her about the band-aids she explained very simply that she had been cutting herself. I admit, I was surprised, but I stayed very cool and just asked her to explain. So she showed me. Deb lifted one band-aid and revealed a fresh, red scar just starting to heal over some pretty impressive cuts. These weren’t fine scratch lines from some lightly dragged blade. These were serious chunks of flesh she had carved from her own arm. Wow! This was a new one for me (at the time). But I didn’t scream or run to get a doctor or ring her parents or any of the things you might think an adult would do. No, I simply started to ask her some questions. Was this the first time? How did it make her feel? Did anyone else know about this? Where did she get the idea? It was a pretty interesting conversation, and you don’t really need to know all of her answers.
At the bottom of all of this was a teenage girl who was pretty unhappy most of the time. There was bad stuff in her life that she didn’t feel she could change, and she didn’t think that she had anyone who could help her. Being “bright” can be a real disadvantage. She had done all this thinking on her own and decided that she “knew” nobody could help her so what was the point in telling her troubles to anyone? Sharing it would probably only make things worse. That was her logic. Smart, huh? But not very experienced!
I listened and asked questions for quite a while, and boy did I learn a few things! Perhaps I’ll share some of that with you later. But now I want to talk about how I helped Deb. It is a simple strategy, and I’m pretty sure it will help you.
There is one simple question you can ask yourself at any time in your life and it will help you. I mean it. Any time you feel you are trapped or in trouble, this is going to get you moving. The question is always the same. And it is especially helpful in a big crisis. But also pretty handy with smaller day to day stuff.
The question goes like this:
What am I going to DO?
Now “do” means action. And that is the key. Thinking is not action. Talking can be the beginning of action, but it is not the same as action. No, doing means actually using your body and your voice and your brains and changing something.
Back to my student, who, you’ll agree, was in crisis. In Deb’s case, what I put to her was the following: there were clearly things in her life that she could DO nothing about. She couldn’t change other people. She couldn’t change the way things in the past had worked out. But there were a whole lot of things that she could DO, starting today, that nobody could stop her from doing. I challenged her with some pretty strong examples. I said, okay, let’s imagine these scenarios. You go home today and say to your mother, you’re leaving school and getting a job. Can she stop you? Yes, she’d throw me out of home. Okay, that might happen. So what would you DO? She was silent. I told her, you’d have to get a job and find somewhere to live. Where could you live? Do you think you could earn enough for rent and support yourself? She said probably not. Do you have any relatives or friends who would let you stay with them while you found your feet? She started to think of possibilities. Within fifteen minutes, we had a scenario that was plausible, not ridiculous and it all meant action on her part, some risks, but at least she was taking control of her life. Deb actually started to smile. I had not seen her smile in six months.
Okay, I said, let’s put that scenario aside. What about a different course of action. Name one thing you are really into, something at school or outside of school that you love doing. She said she was pretty into InfoTech and the whole computer and internet thing. Okay, I said, let’s imagine this scenario. You go home tonight, sit down with your mother, and say you want to leave school and enrol in an IT training course. You say that if you can’t get in anywhere, you want her to help you find work experience in an IT company and start to make connections.
It was interesting that Deb could not even imagine how her mother would react. You have probably guessed that Deb was not getting on well with her mum. In fact, they hardly spoke. I did pick up, though, that her mum was still washing her clothes, feeding her, sending her to an expensive school, and doing a lot of worrying about her. This made me feel pretty confident that this was not a mother who had given up on her daughter!
So we played this game a couple of times, until I thought I had convinced Deb that this question was a key. What can I DO? Teenagers often feel frustrated, especially when they feel like they have no control over their lives. Our first walk is down a winding, bumpy road with many forks and side streets. And as your guide, the point I want to make here is simply that you always have choices, and the strongest thing you can do is imagine those choices and then ACT on the one you believe is best for you. The weakest thing you can do is DO nothing. When that is your choice (yes, doing nothing is also a choice YOU make) you are really telling the adults around you to take control for you.
Now I want to examine this idea in a couple of new ways. Then, at the end of the walk, I’ll tell you what happened to Deb.
Think about some of the computer games you enjoy playing. Boys seem especially into these things, but most girls have given things like X-Box a go and enjoy phone apps, Wii games or self-directed web-based stuff. I have a simple point to make: with all of these things, a big part of the fun is the way you learn and improve each time you start again. Built into all of these games is the ability to start over. And each time you start over, you play a little better. And most kids play over and over and over until there is no challenge left in the game. Then they want to move on to something more challenging or more complicated.
Now your life also works very much like this!
At every stage of our life we master things that at first seem hard. Each time we retry, we get a little better. No, that’s not quite true, sometimes we have a really bad go, as if all our previous learning has left us. But mostly, our direction is towards improvement and mastery.
Think of walking! How difficult and challenging to a baby. And as a child masters the basics, he or she automatically seeks out steps, chairs, starts to run. Along with these new challenges come falls, cuts and bruises, but mostly mastery. By the time you were three, you didn’t have to think about walking. There were new challenges, like reading!
Relationships also work like this. Most kids start to test out and learn from relationships in their teen years. You make mistakes, get hurt, and learn more about what to do or not to do next time. You start over with someone new. You probably know plenty of adults who have started over, maybe more than once, with the tricky game of marriage. We will talk more about marriage and family on another walk, but I think some adults need to learn from X-Box. In a marriage, you can start over with the characters you’ve got and improve things. You don’t always need to change to a new game to keep enjoying yourself. Some adults need to learn to keep a marriage interesting by creating new challenges, new “levels” if you like, such as travel and learning new things together.
One thing is for sure with all of us: if we don’t start over sooner or later, we risk getting stuck or bored. I am sure this is part of the reason many marriages fall apart by the time the children are teenagers. But more of that later.
This walk is about the rollercoaster ride of life. And in case you haven’t noticed, everyone, and I really mean every single person on this planet, gets a ride of ups and downs. Sure, some people get more than their share of downs. We all know stories of terrible luck and great sadness. What I want you to consider is this: if you EXPECT your life to have ups and downs, you win in two ways. When things go well, you know that you have to celebrate. Really whoop it up big time. Because happy times, success, special moments are temporary. They need to be enjoyed while you have them. This is a good rule to stick to in life and you would be surprised how many people don’t follow it. Be someone who celebrates life’s simple ups. You’ll find that your enthusiasm is infectious.
Now what about the downs?
My idea is that if you EXPECT there to be some downs, you will be better prepared to deal with them when they come. They will come, and never when you want them to! I’ve seen all sorts of sadness in my thirty years as a teacher. And I’ve had a chance to watch how different people cope or don’t cope when it comes. This leads me back to my main idea on this walk. Action. When hard times, bad luck or tragedy strike, the question for you, personally, is still the same: what are you going to DO?
Let’s consider some examples. All of these are real and from my own experience.
A girl in Year 10 fell pregnant.
A boy in Year 11 drove, unlicensed, a short distance in his parent’s car and crashed, killing his best friend.
A father of a “perfect” family suddenly committed suicide, leaving a wife and three children shattered and broke.
A gentle, hard-working boy of 16 was told he had an inoperable brain tumour.
A teacher driving students to a ski camp lost control on a slippery mountain road and two Year 12 girls were killed.
A student’s older brother was sent to gaol for rape.
A girl in Year 12 had an affair with a teacher and her mother read about it in her diary and confronted the school.
Two 15-year-old boys were caught selling drugs at school.
A girl’s family suffered four long years while her younger brother battled and lost his fight with leukaemia.
A wealthy family lost all their money through business fraud.
I could fill pages with such stories. These all fall into the BIG stuff, category. You probably know stories from your own social groups. There are going to be times in your life that challenge you and the people around you. How you handle these times will become part of who you are.
Glance over my list above. Imagine yourself in any one of these situations. They are all real. I am not suggesting it is easy, but I can tell you that at the end of the day, when your turn comes and you find yourself under serious pressure, the most useful thing you can ask yourself will be, “What am I going to DO?”
You will face some choices. Sometimes none of the choices seem good or easy. But there are always choices. You might need someone to help you see the possible options. You might need to talk with a few people. But you will need to DO something in order to cope and keep moving forward in your life.
We like to call people heroes in our society. Heroes make for great stories. But I think heroes are really just DOERS. When something unexpected suddenly happens, and many people just stand around in shock, someone in the crowd takes ACTION and DOES something, because they have learnt that lesson from life. Often it is the person that takes action that we want to call brave or courageous. A hero. I think what you are seeing is that many people find it easier to do nothing.
Take these two extreme examples:
In 2001, you would know that a terrorist group planned a series of co-ordinated attacks across America, using planes as bombs. Think for a moment about that group of ordinary people on the plane headed for the White House in Washington. We know, from the scraps of phone calls made from that flight that a small number of passengers made the spontaneous decision to DO something. They found themselves in pretty much as terrible a situation as you could find yourself in. It would have been perfectly understandable if they just remained in their seats, terrified and hoping that somehow, someone else might save their lives. But a handful of these passengers took action, and as you may know, they challenged the terrorists and caused the plane to crash before reaching its target. Not much of a choice, you may say. They died anyway. True. But they chose to die, giving their lives to save the loss of many more. And they chose to die fighting back, rather than passively accepting their fate in the hands of heartless strangers. An extreme example. But still, the same principles apply. While many caught in the situation felt absolutely helpless, a small handful still recognised that there were choices, and that taking some action was better than doing nothing. What do you think?
I mentioned earlier a gentle student I taught who, in Year 11, was told that he had a brain tumour. I’ll call him James. James became too ill for school, and attempts to treat the cancer failed. It became clear to him over the next twelve months, that he was going to die, and soon. It must have been a very sad time for his family, and we can only try to imagine how it feels to be a teenager coming to terms with the reality that you are not going to have a full life. I would forgive anyone for becoming depressed and giving up. After all, what is the point of doing anything if you know you are dying? But I kept in contact with James and his family, through his younger sister whom I was teaching throughout this crisis. And I followed his progress over the last six months of his life. James set out to tackle as many of his dreams as his health would allow. His parents and a wide community of friends and supporters helped him any way they could. He loved the beach and surfing. Friends set up a charity drive and raised the money to take him surfing in Hawaii. James threw himself into reading and took up writing poetry. I was very touched when he wrote to me to tell me I had inspired him. I sent James a list of “must read” books and his sister decided to read them with him. I still smile when I recall that in his final weeks of life, James planned his funeral, down to the last detail. The music he wanted, a speech he wanted read out at the service. The bright red 1950s “surfing” Holden station-wagon he wanted his casket carried in, with his surfboard on the roof. I get tears in my eyes when I talk about James. But this story is just another example of an ordinary person, no different to you or me, taking control and doing what he could when he found himself in an extreme crisis.
This is what our walk is about. And I hope and pray that you and I will never find ourselves in such terrible situations. But every day, ordinary people do. What you can be sure of is that at some times in your life, you will be challenged, and it is at those times when I hope that you lean on this simple life lesson: there are always things you can do, and it is always better to do something rather than nothing.
Thankfully, most of us will never face such terrible times. But your life is going to present you with difficulties and there will be times when you feel frustrated or down. At these times, remember that you have to ask yourself the question, “What am I going to DO?”
Finally, as this walk comes to an end, I want to remind you also that throughout this talk, I have referred to the help others can offer. Taking responsibility for yourself does NOT mean that you have to solve problems all on your own. Friends, family, adults in your life like teachers or a family doctor, all of these options are there and a good player uses them like strategies or cheats to win a game.
As for my student, Deb, her journey is interesting. Shortly after our talk, she set in motion a string of changes. She left school, and moved out of her home to live with an aunt. I don’t know what happened after that, but a year later, she returned to school, where she completed Year 12 with some very strong marks. She moved back in with her mother, and studied an IT course at university.
Deb came back to visit me some years later to say hi. She was wearing a short-sleeved top. I could spot the faint scars but they were fading. No miracles. Just a teenager who took control of her own life, took action and found that the adults around her supported her. Even when she changed her mind.
You will find that most adults actually do have an idea about the struggles of being a teenager. We can remember a lot of it, especially the tough times and we can see what goes on around us today in a world that is different from the world in which we were teenagers, but where the kinds of problems you face are familiar to us.
In summary then, you are going to hit problems, big and small. When you do, the best thing you can do is take action. You will have to DO something. Deciding what to do can be hard. Get help making your decision. Speak to people, especially adults because there are plenty of adults in your life and in your community who have walked down this road before. These adults will help you see the possible choices and help you imagine the consequences of taking different paths. Make your choice. Act on it. Further down the road you might decide it was a poor choice. That’s okay. Use your gaming skills. Start over. Use what you’ve learnt.
Oh, and one more thing: remember to celebrate the ups. See if you can encourage those around you to do the same.