Almost a week ago now, our local paper featured a feel-good story on one of the city’s public high school graduates. It’s been shared all over social media, and the school system has been proud to showcase it on Facebook and Twitter. The story begins like this:
“Eighteen years ago, Cate O’Malley was a helpless infant, left at a Chinese orphanage in a metal bucket, with her future, even her life, hanging in the balance.”
That’s a great hook for a story, don’t you think? This well-written feature focuses on the glories, successes, and life lessons that Cate has seen and experienced since enrolling in high school. She says, “I feel like now, after four years, I’ve learned some lessons about myself, and that what other people think about me doesn’t really matter.”
Had I realized that lesson when I was a senior in high school, I’m pretty sure I’d have found peace with myself long before I did.
Stories like this uplift me, keep me going from one day to the next, make me grateful that people like Cate exist. But the second paragraph of the feature—the part that no one seems to be talking about—haunts me.
Five years ago, she was a middle schooler in Kettering, succeeding in school, but suffering through some kids’ cruel insults about her Asian appearance and heritage that left her wanting to just blend in.
‘I left middle school feeling lonely and unsure of myself,’ O’Malley said in her speech. ‘Tired of feeling so much self-pity, I realized there needed to be a crucial change. Knowing I had a chance to change my story, I decided that rather than being led like a sheep, I wanted to be a shepherd and lead.’
While the story highlighted her change in attitude—moving from self-pity to taking control of her life—I’m more concerned with the change that didn’t happen: the behavior of those kids who were “cruel.” She was disparaged for her Asian appearance and heritage. Don’t you mean that Cate was the victim of racism? Let’s call it what it is here, folks.
Why is that so bothersome to me? Because middle school is a time of awkwardness and great change. It’s hard enough being a pre-pubescent or pubescent kid in a public school system, much less having to endure taunts and bullying. And while I’m mostly happy with our school system, it is not diverse and often intolerant. As a substitute teacher here, I have encountered those who truly believe that the color of your skin or your sexual orientation or gender matters. I’ve called students out when they’ve used derogatory terms to describe a person of color or a young person who doesn’t identify as heterosexual. My children go to school with students who draw racial epithets on bathroom walls, and my now-rising sixth grader informed me this past year that the principal of her school gathered the then fifth graders to talk about racism and why it was wrong. Sadly, that conversation occurred twice, as if the message didn’t get through the first time.
And so, while this wonderful story can give most people all the feels, the ending of it could very well have been very different. Mental health issues in adolescents are on the rise, and according to a 2017 Youth Risk Behaviors Study, “7.4 percent of youth in grades 9-12 reported that they had made at least one suicide attempt in the past 12 months.” Not everyone has a support system like Cate O’Malley. Not everyone is as strong as she is. Not everyone will have the happy ending that she has. All’s well that ends well, right? Until it doesn’t.
The story about Cate ended on an optimistic note, taken from her very own baccalaureate speech: “You are never done writing your own story.”
She’s right. And in my mind, the school system should remember what she says. The folks in charge need to take a good look at what’s happening inside the schools, and write a new narrative, because we’re far from done writing that story.