January 20, 2023
Last Friday, I attended another deeply moving Middle School assembly as part of the Real Talk series.
These assemblies, about three each year, were launched about three years ago, in order to help our students understand more fully the lived experience of some of their peers whose identities or backgrounds might be different than their own.
Each program involves a presentation during which volunteer panelists, mostly Middle and Upper School students, talk about their own identities. Past programs have focused on differences in learning style, family structure, religious background, race and ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, disabilities, or medical conditions.
This most recent assembly, called My Powerful Mind, focused on mental health challenges. The panelists, two seventh graders, an 11th grader, a 12th grader, and a member of the faculty, spoke bravely and movingly about their struggles with mental health. Each recounted their experience with issues like: grief and loss, anxiety, depression, trichotillomania, panic attacks, an eating disorder, and body dysmorphia.
Before each panelist spoke, Middle School guidance counselor Dayna Sargent gave some context, providing a working definition of the condition as well as an overview of causes, symptoms, and available treatments.
Then, each panelist spoke, reading prepared answers to questions that had been posed, in advance, by Middle School students, and selected and read by the moderators Jacky Kalubi and Kristin Suer.
In response to these skillfully crafted and sensitive questions, the panelists described how and when they learned of their condition, what symptoms they experienced, how their lives have been impacted, how their condition can be managed or treated and, particularly, what they would like their peers to know about the struggles they have faced.
How powerful it was to hear these students speak with such candor and courage about the challenges they have faced, the misconceptions surrounding their conditions, and the stigma often associated with mental illness! And how heartening it was to hear each of them speak, too, about the support they have received from mental health providers as well as from friends, classmates, and families.
From the rapt and attentive silence that prevailed throughout the 75-minute assembly and the thunderous applause after each speaker finished, it was clear that this was, once again, a powerful experience for our Middle School students and faculty. They left the assembly, I believe, with a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by some of their peers and a rekindled determination to sustain the kind, compassionate, and respectful culture that defines that Seven Hills community.
I was struck, once again, by how carefully Jacky, Kristin, and Dayna orchestrated this experience to cultivate respect, compassion, and empathy. In the advisory sessions that preceded the assembly, the Middle School students’ advisors helped them frame the questions they hoped the panelists would address. But they also encouraged them to look inward, by taking a brief survey about the sources of stress in their own lives and by discussing what they could control themselves and where they might need help.
One goal of this exercise is to help foster what Head of Middle School Bill Waskowitz calls “a community of care,” in which our students and faculty seek to understand and support one another. Another goal, which was echoed as each of the panelists spoke, was to encourage those in the audience who might be struggling in silence with their own challenges to understand what they may be feeling and to step forward and seek the help they need.
How blessed we are to be able to provide these kinds of experiences to help young people who may be struggling with unseen challenges. These assemblies — along with many other similar experiences — are part of our ongoing commitment to fostering a diverse and inclusive community and a culture in which all our students feel heard and understood and are encouraged to support one another in a community of care.
It makes me very, very proud!
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