Navigating the Impossible

Students suffering through any kind of crisis deserve unlimited support and patience.

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illustration by Kristen Kinzler

It can be hard to know how to navigate a full course load and a personal crisis as a high school student.

Kristen Kinzler, Co-Editor-in-Chief

It’s six o’clock in the morning, and you’re staring at your reflection in the mirror. Red rims around your eyes. Flushed cheeks. An excruciating headache that’s a result of stress and grief and tears.

You want to take the day off. You have no motivation to go to school or even interact with other people. You couldn’t focus enough to do any of your homework the night before. But you have three tests that day and a project due at the end of the week. You muster up every last ounce of courage you have and splash some cool water on your face. You don’t have time to fall apart — not without ruining everything you’ve worked so hard for.

Unfortunately, this is a fairly common occurrence for high school students experiencing personal crises or trauma. In the United States, there are about 1.5 million people under the age of 18 who have lost one of both of their parents, and about 20% of teenagers experience depression before they reach adulthood. When a family member dies, a loved one gets sick, or their own mental health suffers, it can feel impossible to focus on school.

While this is a normal reaction, its academic impact can be devastating. You could be an excellent student enrolled in Honors and AP classes with dreams of going to a selective college, and one event could ruin all your plans. Ironically, those kinds of students are usually the ones who are the least likely to reach out for support. It can be intimidating to ask for help when you’ve never needed it before.

I should know — I was one of those kids. I’ve wanted to go to one college for the past four years, and everything I’ve done has been with that goal in mind. Then, halfway through my junior year, my dad died, and nothing seemed to matter anymore.

Obviously, it was hard, and I certainly had those days where I wanted to throw away all my dreams and just bury myself beneath a blanket. I didn’t know what to do or who to turn to.

However, after a few weeks, I was lucky enough to be able to set aside some of my grief to focus on my long term goals, mostly because I knew it would make my dad proud. The only thing he had ever wanted for me was to use my brain, get into a good school, and create a better life for myself. I buried myself in school work.

When I did get into that dream college, almost a year after my dad’s death, I was congratulated by friends and family members, most of whom added something about how “strong” I was or how the achievement was even more impressive considering what I’d “been through.” 

Though the comments were meant to be supportive, I couldn’t help but think about how messed up they were. It meant that in order to accomplish the one thing I so desperately wanted, I had to practically ignore what had happened. That I had to choose between processing my emotions like a normal human being and getting good grades. That I had to either put my grief aside or ruin the future I had already worked so hard for.

The bottom line is that no kid should have to be strong during one of the darkest times of their life in order to not squander their dreams. In fact, no one can be that strong. My choice to focus on school wasn’t a sign of tenacity or integrity. It was a coping mechanism.

But not everyone grieves the same way, so not everyone can do what I did. And under no circumstances should students who are unable to be productive and focused during a difficult time be punished for it.

When an adult loses a loved one, they typically can take time off to process their emotions. Most jobs afford employees some kind of bereavement leave, or they can use vacation or sick days.

When a student suffers a similar loss, they aren’t afforded the same luxuries. They can obviously take some time off, but while they’re gone, assignments and grades pile up. They still have a transcript coming in at the end of the semester, and for students with ambitious plans, that can be stressful.

No kid should have to be strong during one of the darkest times of their life in order to not squander their dreams. In fact, no one can be that strong.”

But no matter how overwhelming your situation might be, there are resources to help, and they’re certainly worth considering. At NASH, most of those start in the guidance office.

Mrs. Rosato, the counselor for students whose last names start with A-Ew, has guided plenty of students through difficult times. When a student comes into her office in the middle of any kind of crisis and believes they are unable to keep up with their academic demands, she’s usually able to help.

“I ask the student if they are comfortable with me sharing [what happened] with their teacher first. Sometimes, it’s very embarrassing to kids, but I encourage them to share a little bit,” Rosato said. “We’re all humans, regardless of whether a teacher is tough or if you’re scared of him or her. If a teacher knows what’s happening, they are so much more sympathetic.”

She has never had a teacher deny a student an extension or provide some leniency when they really need it.

“I’m only speaking for myself, but if I say, ‘This student cannot take their test today,’ the teacher is going to know I’m not joking. If a kid is having a panic attack, a mental health crisis, or his mom is sick in the hospital and he can’t focus, in those cases, I have never had an issue with asking if they can just take the test tomorrow,” she explained.

But Rosato cautioned that it’s not an option that should be taken advantage of, especially if a student is simply overwhelmed with their course load or didn’t study.

“It’s not an open pass for kids to do that every single test,” she said.

As far as college admissions go, Rosato believes that, for the most part, institutions are sympathetic to extraneous circumstances.

“It’s often something a counselor will write about in a letter of recommendation. I have written a billion letters explaining how her grades were not as high in ninth grade because she had a concussion and missed two months of school, or in eleventh grade, his mom died and he lost focus,” she said. “I usually put a positive spin on it and say, ‘But look now, things have turned around. It was circumstantial.’”

Rosato stressed that the more information colleges have, the better.

“It’s really important for students to share that information with colleges, because if a college representative looks at a student’s transcript, they just might assume laziness. They need context,” she added.

However, there can still be a stigma associated with reaching out for help. Sometimes, it can feel isolating.

“You feel like you’re alone,” Rosato said. “I wish that students would understand how many students we see a day who are experiencing the same thing.”

She also encouraged anyone who may feel embarrassed asking for help to start by sending their counselor a quick email. It’s often a less intimidating way of opening up the lines of communication.

“A counselor’s role is to be a student advocate. That’s our main job. We’re the good guys. All we do all day is help kids,” she said.

For the most part, the resources are exactly what kids need. When you’re going through something, you require someone to be in your corner, and you deserve some extra patience.

However, there can’t be an expiration date for when a student can ask for help. Obviously, there comes a point where a student can use grief and trauma as an excuse to constantly get out of doing their work, and that becomes an issue. But until then, we all need to offer each other some grace.

Offering long term support for kids who are truly suffering is worth the cost of a small portion of students using it to their advantage.”

I know it’s easy for me as a student to say that, and I cannot even begin to imagine how exhausting it must be for teachers to see students incessantly manipulate the system. But I believe that offering long-term support for kids who are truly suffering is worth the cost of a small portion of students using it to their advantage. It’s just the right thing to do.

If we ever get to a point where cheating is more of a concern than a grieving student, our education system has failed.

It’s a two-way street. We can only get the support we truly need by reaching out for it. Going through difficulties is nothing to be ashamed of, and there are people who care about you. Asking for help is not a futile attempt, and you’re not alone. Sometimes, that’s the greatest comfort.

But our institutions should be flexible with us, too. Mental health isn’t linear, and it doesn’t adhere to a timeline. Over a year after my dad’s death, there are some days when I feel more consumed with it than ever before. And then there are some days when I feel much more hopeful. A student should be given patience whenever they need it– whether that’s a week or two years after they suffered a loss.

No one asks for things in their life to fall apart. When a student signs up to take multiple AP classes, they have no way of knowing that something catastrophic will happen to them outside of school. That’s just life.

But another aspect of life is doing all we can to ease each other’s suffering. It’s our common humanity. We need to focus on that now more than ever— especially when it comes to helping teenagers at their most vulnerable.