Want change? Start in our high school

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By ERIC A. HOWALD

It’s a sad comment on the state of our world when two teens in our community stand accused of a murder and my first thought is, “At least they didn’t open fire at one of the schools.”

In nearly eight years of operating in and around McNary High School as part of my jobs at this paper, I often feel I’ve spent more time there than I did my own alma mater. I’ve known several students since their freshman year and followed their trajectories to graduation and beyond.

When I first started working here, I got to know a handful of students on something more than a name-and-face basis. One even covered the sports desk for a while when I was news editor. To this day, he’s one of my favorite colleagues ever.

It’s hard not to get attached at times. To cheer for them when they do well. To shake my head when one of them falls off the straight and narrow. To assume a little bit of pride in them and their accomplishments, even if that’s not my place.

Those are the reasons it hit so hard when I went to talk with a group of Celtic students three years ago about their efforts to end bullying at McNary. I sat at the front of their classroom as they told me about the many ways they’d suffered at the hands of bullies and the cringe-inducing ways they took it out on themselves. They opened their hearts and trusted me with some of their most painful secrets.

It easy for us, as adults, to look back on our high school years with a sense of relief at having made it through at all. In the best cases, we even start viewing some of the time as a positive experience. We learn to look at it with a wider perspective, a more reasonable mind. But that isn’t the case for a lot of high school students, and it can seem nigh on impossible when they’re in the thick of it.

Listening to those students’ stories changed me. I’d convinced myself it was enough that I was helping them tell their stories in our paper, but that didn’t rise to the challenge the kids had laid before me. I wanted them to have the right words when they needed them.

The following fall, I began volunteering at McNary after school every Thursday. I lead a writing club where the students with an interest in writing careers or just an interest in being better writers can come and pick up some tips on how to hone their craft. Each year, one of the students has asked me if we can do it again, and this spring will see us publish our third volume of student writing.

There are thousands of inspiring things, small and huge, happening with our McNary students every year. At the same time, they carry around a lot of pain, and this past week was a horrific confirmation of that fact.

I get excited the first time I meet with the kids every year. I’ve had as many as two dozen show up, but, by the time we publish the book, the number settles around a 10 to 12. When I meet any of the kids, be it on the job or as a volunteer, I go to great lengths to memorize their names and faces. I want them to know that I’m seeing them as individuals; that I care enough to bother. I would gladly welcome another 30 into our club. I’ve got desks and memory to spare.

The problem is that there are 2,000 kids at that school, and this is a numbers game.  On my best days, I might know 150 by name and face and, unfortunately, I wouldn’t even be able to convince half of them that writing actually can be fun.

If everyone with a passion – be it business, a foreign language, film, model-making, reading, knitting or geocaching – could find a way to make time for a group of 12 students, I know it would go a long way to preventing incidents like we had in Keizer last week.

I’m a realist. I know that bad things are going to happen even if we’re all doing everything we can, but I think we can be doing more.

I also think we should.

(Eric A. Howald is the associate editor of the Keizertimes.)

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