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    Tuesday, November 29, 2022

    The eight brave kids of NFA: It’s OK not to feel OK

    Norwich – Courage, it has been suggested, begins with showing up and allowing yourself to be seen.

    And what a scene to be seen Friday on The Hallan Stage inside venerable Slater Auditorium, where eight student-athletes from Norwich Free Academy, before hundreds of their peers, told their stories.

    Their stories about suicidal thoughts. Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Perfectionism. Social media shaming. Anxiety. The tug of the streets. Fear of injury. Their stories that captivated a room and somehow all found their way home, back to the day’s theme: It’s OK not to feel OK.

    The dramatis personae: Hannah Graham, Alexis Boyer, Eddie Santana, Anna Ricketts, Alyssa Newson, Alice Rourke, Will Ambruso, Elya Anor. Their bravery and candor made NFA’s first Mental Health Matters Athletic Conference, the brainchild of school counselor Anne Zinn and girls’ basketball coach Courtney Gomez, a beacon of hope at NFA and a blueprint for what should happen at every other high school in America.

    Ricketts shared how an eating disorder nearly derailed her cross country career. Rourke spoke of suicidal thoughts, but later deadpanned her way through a scene with moderator Mike O’Farrell that filled the room with laughter. Newson talked about her OCD. The most personal of personal things, right there on stage, with gallantry belying their years.

    “You wouldn’t get told to ‘suck it up’ with a broken leg,” Ricketts said, answering a question, “so why would you play with a broken mind?”

    Except that a broken leg, equipped with a cast and crutches, is tangible, perhaps even laudable, a badge of courage of getting hurt in the line of playing. A broken mind is harder to detect, not to mention stigmatized in a world that a little more every day sustains Carl Jung’s line, “thinking is difficult. That’s why so many people judge.”

    Put it this way: Our country may be lagging in many categories, but we’ve become the Aaron Judge of being judgy. The kids, even if unwittingly, alluded to this frequently. They are judged by their parents, peers and on social media, all while the alleged prerequisite to judging – having walked the metaphorical mile – does not exist. Heck, read one story on theday.com and partake of the HCS (Human Comments Section), where the compulsion to judge faithfully deepens our cultural morass.

    The eight panelists, meanwhile, educated the rest of us on how to include coping skills into our daily groove. Many of them thanked Zinn for her ideas, patience and wisdom, especially now when kids – likely because their parents are lacking here, too – do not have the coping skills of previous generations.

    “One bad day,” Graham said, “only makes the better days so much better.”

    Santana even quoted a song lyric from “Bounce Back,” a song by Big Sean, that includes, “last night I took an ‘L,’ but tonight I bounce back.”

    To reiterate: The kids chose to be on stage and to share. Have you any idea the levels of vulnerability required to do that, especially in a society where everybody portrays themselves as Ward, June, Wally and The Beave on Facebook?

    And seeing as how Facebook has morphed into a playroom for adults more than kids, the adults might have been interested in the kids’ musings. Two popular themes: Some of their parents and their coaches need better communication skills.

    Several of the kids praised cross country coach (and special education teacher) Kara Kochanski Vendola for her compassion, while other NFA coaches apparently have some work to do. Mostly, all the kids expressed varying levels of trepidation about sharing with their parents. They used the word “unrelatable” and nearly all said their parents have a hard time understanding their mental struggles.

    So as parents, we should ask ourselves: Are we putting undo pressure on our kids? How well do we really know our kids? Is a B-plus really so bad? Again: Not questions we have time to ponder when we’re posting our vacation pictures from Cabo on Facebook.

    In a society of increasingly impossible standards, the kids of NFA gave their peers some standards that could save their lives Friday: Reach out. Struggle begets learning and growing. Don’t give up. It can get better. We’re here to listen.

    A good day, this.

    “Even if a day like this can reach one person,” Newson said, “That’s a win.”

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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