Students show leadership, maturity
Learning how to lead is a time-honored tradition for American high school students. There’s the classroom for learning how to think and and then there are team captains, National Honor Society officers, student government members, 4-H, community service and other organizations for learning how to lead. Students get to practice teamwork and leadership within a sport or activity that plays to their strengths. They hear the message loud and clear: work hard, don’t quit, be tough, be fast, be smart, be strong.
Schools must be doing something right, given the accomplishments of so many teenage athletes, academic achievers and good citizens. But opportunity and success are not the whole story, including among the most accomplished.
In recent days, some of these present and future leaders have demonstrated an essential component of leadership that is often overlooked: acknowledging the mental health toll on students who believe they cannot admit the pressures on them; or, on those who feel unrecognized and left out.
Norwich Free Academy last week gave 600 varsity athletes the chance to hear from eight peers about their personal reactions to the feeling of pressure not to let down the team, the school, their families. Amid the heightened awareness of the mental health issues inflicted by the pandemic’s interruption of school and activities, the speakers talked about the ongoing urgency to perform. It is the shadow side of competition, and the younger a person is, the less they may realize they are not the only one experiencing the stress.
Another group of 70 students, led by members of the inter-school group More Than Words, met last week at the LaGrua Center in Stonington on a problem with comparably serious ill-effects on individuals. The group exists to bring together students of diverse backgrounds as leaders for social justice. Organized more than a decade ago in response to racial tensions at Ledyard and New London high schools, it later added Fitch High School and deals with all types of bias.
Like the NFA student athlete speakers, the More Than Words members not only name the problems they see, they own their effects publicly. Prejudice hurts. Misunderstanding causes pain. Their frankness and courage sends a message of recognition to students being treated differently because of race, ethnicity or gender identity.
Experts in adolescent development note that teenagers are more likely to listen to a peer than to anyone else. Other schools should consider inviting More Than Words to start a club, and NFA, having taken the step of holding an event for varsity athletes, should expand it to students in activities other than sports. The model of hearing frank accounts by fellow students could help students in any school admit to themselves and the adults in their lives that everything is not perfect.
Students say that many parents and coaches do not make it easy to talk to them about mental health or identity issues. For some adults this will be a teachable moment, with the young people in their lives leading the way.
This community should be proud of the young people, still growing up themselves, who have the maturity to reach out to other students, and grateful to their allies, the adults who advise and counsel them.