Saturday, 13 October 2012

Save a teenager's life: Be present in it

The Hillcrest High School gang used to call our place "the bus stop".
That's because we lived one bus stop from school and ours became the place where all my boys' friends would hang out. During the high school years, our place was dripping with teenagers. They were all nice kids, very respectful and quiet.
Of course, they were quiet because they were stoned through much of high school. They'd all go for a walk, come back and congregate in Stef's room and play guitars and talk. In the summers, they were a constant fixture in our backyard where they were free to drink some beer, toke and talk.
Okay, so Scott and I weren't the perfect parents but we felt the kids were at least safe at our house and not bringing home hefty fines as "found-ins" in the neighborhood park.
All of the bus stop kids came from decent homes. Their parents were teachers, business executives, firefighters, accountants and such. They all lived in very nice homes and had lots of soccer and baseball trophies in their rooms. These were the kids whose parent took them to hockey practice at 6 a.m. and piano lessons at night. They came from dual income families.
But something happened along the way.
When they became teenagers, their parents stopped caring about them. Some were disappointed that their A students had become C students, not living up to expectations. Other parents were so wrapped up in their careers, figuring now that the kids were teenagers, they didn't need minding. Still others were divorcing. One parent decided to come out of the closet.
Somewhere between public school and high school, each of these kids' worlds fell apart.
That's why they came to our house. At our house, somebody was always home. If I was working, Scott was home making bread. If Scott was working, I was making spaghetti sauce for a grateful and hungry crowd. I'm sure, absolutely sure, that these kids would have lived on pizza pockets and soda pop if they didn't eat at our house. I'm also sure that much of the time, they would have come home to empty houses or fighting parents.
The bus stop was their safe house. The bus stop was a place where the adults left their judgment at the door.
I'm not trying to say we were better than other parents, just that we learned from our mistakes.
The relationship we had with my boys was not perfect by any means. In fact, early in high school both boys dropped out. Nick went on the street and Stef simply left the house with his brown bag lunch, but simply never went to school. They were drinking and doing a lot of drugs at the time.
For three years, as a single parent, I fought hard to get the boys back into school.
And thanks to Scott, I finally had a backup. Together, we managed to get my boys back on a good path.

In Grade 11, we met the bus stop kids. They showed up one day and never left, and we were grateful.
Allowing the bus stop kids into our home was our way of giving back to the counsellors and teachers who helped right the boys from bad paths. We hoped we could make a difference in the lives of this gaggle of little misfits.
We saw a lot indeed.
As a result of parental neglect and anger, a lot of the kids from the bus stop stopped growing as individuals. George began as a math whiz, a straight A student in Grade Nine, but after his dad came out, he was never the same. George dropped out of school and became a clerk at Blockbuster. His girlfriend, Amanda, was the most beautiful girl, an Emma Stone lookalike who had to work two jobs to go to college because her mom spent her university fund on new furniture. Unbelievable.
Ryan came from a rich family who owned a business. His parents kicked him out and he came to live with us for a while. Last I heard, Ryan was working at Tim Horton's and dealing drugs on the side.
Michelle was very troubled. We often found her on the floor in the bathroom weeping. Her parents were indifferent, so she became a stripper. When she finally decided she needed a better life, she asked her mom if she could move back home. Her mom said no. A few days later, Michelle was found hanging from a red ribbon. She was just eighteen years old.

I'm writing this because of the public outcry over a rash of very public suicides. Some of the kids have been so distressed they've taken their case to YouTube instead of talking it out with their parents. It's pretty easy to understand why.
At least a computer makes no judgment about them.
I'm not saying that every suicide can be prevented. A lot of kids come from good homes and still commit suicide.
But there are many kids whose parents believe that once they're in high school the parental job is done. I'm here to suggest this to parents of up-and-coming teenagers. Put them in damned daycare when they're little but make sure you are present in their teenage lives. Teenagers need their parents around; they don't need another damned SUV in the driveway.
Whatever you do, be there, but don't judge them. The world they are growing up in is a pretty cold and miserable place so if they don't want to be fucking accountants, that's their business. You're not there to raise MBAs, you're there to raise good, decent kids.
And never, ever lock them out of the house.
They might, just might, come  home dead.
Ask Leslie Mahaffy's mom.
I don't know if Michelle's parents could have saved her. She was one fucked up kid. But if I were her mom, I'd absolutely know I would have invite her back home to loving arms. I would have made her soup and held her close.
Parents of kids who commit suicide know this one truth.
There are no do-overs after death.
They should have asked questions long before.


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