If you can figure out what that means, you win a prize. Don’t know what it is but I digress. I had the honour of presenting to a typical student audience on Tuesday but have never written a blog about it so there must be something out of the ordinary. Please allow a short preamble.
I have spoken in over 5,000 schools in my life and frankly, they are pretty consistent. I would never suggest they are “all the same” as that would run counter to my argument that each one of us are completely unique and contribute to the amazing matrix (not a reference to a movie) we call Humanity, but my popularity is in part credited to tried and true programming that is “consistent”. I also believe that I am very fortunate in that schools who go to the trouble and expense of bringing myself and other speakers to their students are special and many even create events and conferences to magnify the messaging. They are also everywhere! To make that sound less obvious, I speak in cities, towns, villages and even at schools that are just “there”. I’d be lying if I said I don’t care where they are, especially in the middle of winter, and there have been many days I have uttered the words, “I don’t get paid enough for this!”
But every now and then, you have a school that surprises you and Tuesday, March 18 was one of those days. I had an event for adults on Monday evening at a Toronto hotel that saw me getting to bed around 1:00 AM and had to leave there by 7:00 AM to get to a school almost three hours drive away. The good news was it was a nice day, unlike most of the days that part of the world has had lately, but the sketchy news was this school was kind of hard to find. If you aren’t aware, rural Ontario, Canada, is full of small, very old towns and seeing black buggies and horses is common suggesting to me that many of these places have one foot in the past and the other in the present. It is stunningly beautiful. But when you are stressed to not get lost and be there on time because “you” are the event, you don’t focus on the scenery.
My program was slated for 10:30 AM so I planned to and arrived at 10:00 and was surprised to see several students already in the gym and the rest were finding their chairs! What? Was my file wrong? I hate being late…alot! The teacher organizer and her Vice Principal were clearly concerned but relieved and asked that I set up as quick as I could as the program was ready to start. It hasn’t happened much but whenever it does, all you can do is be “professional” and get to it, which is precisely what I did. But there appeared to be something going on I was unaware of. Only half the gym was full with a couple hundred empty chairs on one whole side. It looked weird. There were also several older students on the stage huddled together going over a script and a powerpoint appeared to be ready to use. I don’t do powerpoint.
My wife, Darlene, runs our speaking business and handles most of the logistics including corresponding with the clients. I usually have a personal chat with them just before the gig and believe it or not, I still use paper files in a manila folder which Darlene compiles. Every now and then there is a glitch and it appeared Tuesday, one was happening. I was the primary reason I was invited but it appeared I wasn’t the most important thing going on. After quickly setting up my equipment, which tends to take my attention, I had a quick chat with the teacher who informed me that this was a very special day. It was then I noticed she was wearing a T-shirt that had a logo with the words…”Disable The Label”, so not being born yesterday, I picked up on that and said to her, “Is that what the shirt is for?” She actually laughed and said, “Oh this? This is a couple of years old but today is about this.”
Without getting too narrative, a couple of years ago, a student with some “challenges” had an idea for a schoolwide initiative around sensitivity towards each other. This school was no worse than any other high school. In fact, and quite bluntly, students are tiring of the “anti-bullying paranoia exaggerated by the media” and tuning out! (Gee, where have I heard that?) Understand that I am not suggesting, and neither was this school, that there is “no Bullying”, but in their words…”Why not take a different approach?” What they created was ingenious! A committee was formed including students, teachers, administration and reps from the community health department and they determined that most of the conflict between students is oddly, not “personal”. It is “adolescence” and driven largely by ignorance and stigma so this student (not sure who it was) suggested a campaign in the school called “Disable The Label” and this would be the theme for assemblies, discussions, and would even go further. The goal; A room in the school for student mental health.
So they kicked off a fundraising campaign so the school wouldn’t be on the hook and they made shirts, bracelets and organized special events and they did it! So the school put aside an unused home-economics room, right next to the counselling department. There is a microwave, hot chocolate, coffee, tea and other legal beverages, cookies and baked goods and a separate “quiet” room for personal use and counselling, if required and the best part…students have been trained for peer counselling to help their fellow students feeling the pressure of life.
Tuesday was the official opening of the room and unveiling of the name…The Cougar Den (school name is Cougars, duh). The announcement was for the high school students and following the excitement of the unveiling, the junior high kids came in to fill the rest of the seats entering to the music video, “Happy” and I did my show that included a lot of stories of overcoming stigma and knowing that life does get better!
I will revisit this subject again but I wanted to simply congratulate the school…Chesley District High School, for initiating and completing an amazing project that could be a prototype for other schools and a new and inspiring way of dealing with legitimate adolescent stress. But most important, and that was my reason for being invited, this will pull back the curtain and take a big step towards removing the stigma of mental health and personal challenge. When we start admitting that we all have mental health issues to varying degrees we can start to see what we all have in common and perhaps someday, we can actually believe in our universal bond of being human.