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Fourth grade was decades ago, but at least one student has not forgotten him.

It’s because of this teacher that I know that learning is one of the best things about being alive.

To him, I am probably long gone, lost in a distant sea of the thousands of students he led through the rough waters of institutional learning.

My fourth-grade class! Photo provided by Tina Plantamura, used with permission.


My face is one of many elementary school students that came and went while under his care in fourth grade. And to him, the story I tell might be familiar. It’s been so many years, and I know it might be hard to remember. But I will never forget that teacher.

It’s because of this teacher that I know that learning is one of the best things about being alive.

Learning was always an adventure in his fourth-grade classroom. He encouraged creativity and imagination.

And because of him, I have done the same for my three children. It was in his class that I read my first novel from cover to cover. And decades later, I bought that same book and read it with my son.

I know he doesn’t remember the last assignment I handed in, but I do.

I thought it was perfect. I hoped for a good grade. And one day after I put it on his desk, I also told him I was moving. I had only found out the night before.

He asked me why and for some reason I told him. I never told anyone else, but I stood there and told him the truth. I told him that my family was falling apart and my mother decided it was time to leave my father.

He told the rest of the class that it was free time, so they could talk and play.

He walked me out to the hallway. We talked for over an hour.

He probably doesn’t remember that day, but he’s probably familiar with something Maya Angelou has said: "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

I don’t remember exactly what he said because it was so long ago.

But I remember that out in that dark and echoing hallway, for the first time in my life, I spoke freely. Standing in front of him, I somehow knew that I didn’t have to be afraid. He listened patiently and attentively. He made me feel important.

When I cried a little, he didn’t tell me to stop, he just waited until I wiped my tears and composed myself enough to speak again. Maybe he called me brave, because that was how I felt.

That was the last time I saw him.

The next day, we left my father.

We packed what would fit in suitcases. I said goodbye to all of my toys and stuffed animals. I looked at our bedroom for the last time. I glanced at the stack of picture albums that held images of the first nine years of my life, not knowing that those years would be nearly erased.

My mother mustered up all the bravery she could find and we left. We got in a car and drove far away.

Fourth grade was decades ago for me.

He might have grey or thinning hair by now. He might not have same bounce in his step or the same energy he had when he stood in front of me and the other students.

The glasses he wears might have a stronger prescription now, and he might be leaner or rounder. He may have retired from teaching or moved up and on to something else. He might be resting on his laurels after a long and challenging career.

But I hope that somehow he knows that he helped change the world for one little girl.

He gave me a glimmer of hope. He gifted me with a love of learning. I was freed from the burden of secrecy and fear because he encouraged me to speak.

I hope he realizes that his worth is far beyond the highest salary he has ever earned. He helped a fearful child find her voice. And I hope other teachers realize that one measure of patience or one conversation or one moment of compassion can save a student.

A teacher like him must have many students who say that their lives changed for the better because of him.

So I hope he never has moments when he wonders about his worth. I hope he never worries that he didn’t do enough. And I hope his heart and spirit are strong and keep him standing should life ever pull him down or make him think that his efforts were futile.

But should he ever feel useless and weak, should he ever wish that he did something unforgettable, should he ever fear that he is not enough, and should he ever wonder if his actions inspired someone ... I hope he'll take a moment to think about all of the students he had and all the things he did and said that changed so many young lives.

I hope he knows that his heart, his time, and his energy make him unforgettable to so many kids like me.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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