Billy's Blog

Vaping is a big concern, but the real issues are bigger

February 12, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

“Overall, rates of vaping are second only to alcohol among substances surveyed with 17.6 percent of 8th graders, 32.3 percent of 10th graders, and 37.3 percent of 12th graders reporting past-year vaping.”
--National Institute on Drug Abuse

One of my favorite novelists, Kevin Baker, titled his book from 1993 “Sometimes You See It Coming.” This can be true in so many ways, both good and bad. Unfortunately in three decades of working in schools, I have seen the validity of this sentiment when it comes to teen substance abuse.

I recall when parents in New Mexico returned from family trips to Colorado after marijuana had been legalized and they described candies sold in stores that were laced with THC. Educators in states neighboring Colorado began to dread the aftermath of school vacations when students would come back with odorless, smokeless forms of marijuana for which we would have to be on the lookout. Regardless of how one felt about the legalization of pot, we did not want it in our schools; now, though, it was much more difficult now to detect.

Similarly, when the vaping craze began a few years ago and it was advertised as an alternative to smoking, parents and educators could sense that trouble was headed our way. As the quotation above points out, vaping is increasing at an alarming rate. In addition, as a New York Times article last year discussed, vaping can be extremely addictive, “E-cigarettes have been touted by their makers and some public health experts as devices to help adult smokers kick the habit. But school officials, struggling to control an explosion of vaping among high school and middle school students across the country, fear that the devices are creating a new generation of nicotine addicts.”

Children today face a world of temptations, including illegal substances. Even when the news may be promising in some areas, the data in other ways can be eye-opening. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • By 12th grade, about two-thirds of students have tried alcohol.
  • About half of 9th through 12th grade students reported ever having used marijuana.
  • About 4 in 10 9th through 12th grade students reported having tried cigarettes.
  • Among 12th graders, close to 2 in 10 reported using prescription medicine without a prescription.

Although the numbers for Keystone students may be different, our children exist in a world where they have access to a variety of substances, and we only have so much control once they are out of our sight. Ultimately, we need to give them the tools to handle situations where they are exposed to alcohol and drugs. In the past, I have heard counselors refer to a spectrum on which children exist regarding substance use and abuse. At one end is exploration where a student is exposed to a substance, wishes to learn more about it, and will try it; in the middle is experimentation where students decide to use something, or some things, more than once and see how it makes them feel; at the other end of the spectrum is abuse where students take the drug or drugs on a regular basis to the point that they may not be able to control their habit.

At Keystone, we want our students to understand the issues they will face in their middle and high school years. To help them, we provide a wellness curriculum that teaches them about a variety of topics from sex education to cyber ethics to substance abuse, and other subjects. We want our students to have information so they can make healthy and well-considered decisions when they face circumstances that, sadly, may be all too typical in today’s world. During the week of February 18-22, our students will hear experts from the organization Freedom from Chemical Dependency discuss topics related to substance use. They will learn how to make responsible choices, to recognize the early warning signs of substance abuse, and come to understand that drug addiction, including alcoholism, is a progressive, chronic, and potentially fatal disease.

In addition, like our parent meeting this week on cyber-safety, we will hold a session on teen substance abuse for parents on Wednesday evening, February 20th from 5:30 - 7 p.m. in the theater.  We hope you can make it so you can learn what you need to know as a parent. If we gather together and educate ourselves and our children, we can better the odds that their years in middle and high school will be happy and healthy, and they will learn good habits for life.

Lessons in online safety from Frankenstein and Jurassic Park

February 08, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

“The technology has become like a phantom limb, it is so much a part of them. These young people are among the first to grow up with an expectation of continuous connection: always on, and always on them. And they are among the first to grow up not necessarily thinking of simulation as second best. All of this makes them fluent with technology but brings a set of new insecurities.”
― Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

For years, I have loved discussing Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” with students. I enjoy the conversations around the story, how the actual tale may differ from the popular culture version they may know, and the relevance of the novel to today’s world. In particular, we talk about the tension between a society’s technical knowledge and its code of ethics. Sometimes they see a parallel between Dr. Frankenstein’s world and today’s moral quandaries, particularly in cyberspace. As with other tectonic shifts, our societal sense of right and wrong has lagged behind our technological advancements. In the first Jurassic Park movie, the scientist Dr. Malcolm states, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

In many ways, this is the dilemma facing today’s youth as they learn how to navigate the internet in general and social media in particular. We have given them amazing tools to communicate, research, learn, and entertain themselves. They have the world at their fingertips, and there’s little they cannot do on a phone that is essentially a small computer.

In some ways, their cyber world is just an extension of their physical space. A review of writer and researcher danah boyd’s book “ It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” states, “ Teenagers’ current exploration of and struggles with identity, privacy, addiction, bullying, risk taking, literacy, inequalities, and being public (the chapters that make up the book) are similar to the processes that we witnessed before there was digital media.”

While much of what is done in a teen’s online life, though, may resemble that of an earlier generation, the difference in potential impact raises enough red flags to be considered an entirely new and different experience. For example, the breadth and depth of a posting means that the consequences are much broader and longer-lasting than something we may have told our friends when we were younger. The repercussions of an online comment can follow someone forever, and unfortunately for today’s digital natives, the margin for error is much narrower than when we were young. As a result, they lack the opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them.

So how can we as parents and educators help our children learn how to live online in this brave, new world? At Keystone, we tell students repeatedly to think before they post. We have assemblies about it, we discuss it in advisory, and posted around school is a sign that asks them to consider whether something they plan to post is true, helpful, inspiring, necessary, and kind-the acronym is THINK.

Perhaps we also need to teach children one of my favorite lessons from Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had a practice of writing a “hot letter,” that he would then put to the side. Later, when he had calmed down, he would write on the letter, “never signed, never sent.” For example, after the Battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln wrote the victorious General George Meade an angry missive castigating him for not pursuing General Robert E. Lee more forcefully. He did not send it, and while Lincoln was frustrated with the Union army’s inaction in the aftermath of the battle, he preserved his relationship with General Meade. Our children need to practice putting something in draft, not sending it, and revisiting it later. Most likely, they will not regret the chance to revisit what they wrote in the light of a new day.

As parents, we need to educate ourselves as much as is possible so we can guide our children. To that end, on Wednesday evening, February 13th, from 6-7:30 p.m., Donna McElroy, a highly regarded San Antonio attorney, will speak in the Keystone Theater on cyber safety and creating one’s digital footprint. This presentation will be for adults. Ms. McElroy spoke to students in grades 6-12 on February 6th during the school day. Ms. McElroy has spoken to Keystone parents and students in the past, and people have found her remarks helpful.

I hope to see you on Wednesday. Regardless of how we feel about social media, it will be a component of our children’s world, and if we want them to be successful and happy, we need to teach them how to use it according to Keystone’s core values of ethical growth and responsible leadership.

Make the most of these moments - every one of them

February 01, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

“Doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment
-”Oprah Winfrey

What a moment! At the postseason basketball tournament, our sixth-grade girls were down much of the game but went ahead with less than two minutes on a shot that hit nothing but net. My generation would call it a Kodak moment. Our girls went on to win the game and move on to the next round in the postseason tournament. The players, the coaches, and the fans all erupted, and I felt lucky to witness the sheer joy on everyone’s faces.

Such is the resonance of special moments in our lives say Chip and Dan Heath, authors of “The Power of Moments.” In their best-selling book, the Heath brothers explain how certain events can alter the course of our existence. We know this intuitively as we celebrate the birth of a child, the first day of school, graduation, weddings, and other happy life-cycle events. Sadly, we also realize that the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or the termination of employment can signal the close of one period and the need to rebuild in preparation for what may come next.

In their book, the Heath brothers explain how we can be intentional in creating moments in our personal and professional worlds. As we do this, we transport our lives to a more meaningful plane than they were before. For moments to be truly extraordinary, they must have elements of elevation, insight, pride, and connection. They should also contain a surprise rather than merely repeating the basics, even if what we’re doing brings positive results.

For a long time now, I have thought that this is how true learning occurs. Students exist at a certain level for a while; typically, they are doing well and they are comfortable. Suddenly, and for lack of a better way to describe it, they have an epiphany where they see the world in a whole new way. It’s as if they now see their lives in color rather than black and white, and as the post World War I song went, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘em Down On The Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”

It’s the permanent impact of special moments that make them better gifts than things. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research called “Experiential Gifts Foster Stronger Social Relationships Than Material Gifts” attests to this fact. This makes sense intuitively. When families and friends get together, they usually reminisce over shared experiences, they relive trips, or they recount humorous happenings. Repeatedly, I have heard from parents that they have decided to give their children experiences rather than objects; they explain that their children appreciate those much longer than the latest “must have” toy that after a few hours, days, or weeks ends up in the corner of the closet or is lost forever under the bed.

So, as parents and as educators, what does all this mean for us? Obviously, much of our lives happen in the daily and the ordinary. However, if we can be purposeful and create moments that take our children and students to a new place, either literally or figuratively, and allow them to see their world anew, then we will have done a great and life-changing service. As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “We have more possibilities in each moment than we realize.”

Keystone strives to live by MLK's values

January 25, 2019
By Billy Handmaker

“We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of my favorite holidays is the annual commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, and I have come to appreciate it even more in San Antonio. For the second year in a row, I had the privilege of walking with other members of the Keystone community in the MLK march, which is now the largest of its kind in the nation. There’s something awe-inspiring in seeing the hundreds of thousands -- yes hundreds of thousands-- people walking in support of peace and justice. It provides one with a sense of hope and energy in these contentious times.

Every January, I try to read or listen to something related to Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement. It could be re-reading the seminal “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” finding a recent article, or listening to a history podcast. A couple of years ago, I heard a speaker explain that as educators, we should relish the opportunity to teach our students about the ongoing struggle in American history to realize the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Watching our Cobras walking with others in the MLK march humbled me, and I considered myself fortunate to to be in their company.

As we walked, I also considered how Dr. King’s work meshed with Keystone’s core values of academic excellence, ethical growth, community involvement, and responsible leadership. King entered Morehouse College as a 15 year old, then attended graduate school at Crozer Theological Seminary where he received a Masters’ Degree, and ultimately received a PhD from Boston University. As King developed his own personal philosophy, he immersed himself in the Old and New Testament, the American Transcendentalists, including Henry David Thoreau, theologians such as Paul Tillich, and 20th Century anti-colonial leaders like Mahatma Gandhi. As an 18 year-senior at Morehouse College, he said, “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education.” In 1951, when King graduated from Crozer with valedictorian honors, Dean Charles Batten praised him as “one of our most outstanding students,” who showed “fine preparation, an excellent mind, and a thorough grasp of the material.”

At times in his career, Dr. King overcame an internal resistance to speak out when his personal ethics compelled him to proceed in spite of the cost. For many years, he refused to comment publicly on the war in Vietnam out of fear of alienating the Johnson administration or potential supporters. Although King began voicing anti-war sentiments in 1965, it was only after seeing pictures of bombing victims while on vacation in 1967 that King felt he could no longer remain silent. On April 4, 1967, he gave a speech at Riverside Church that explicitly called for the US to change its policy toward Southeast Asia. People responded to his speech with either strong support or bitter criticism; however King believed it was his ethical duty to bring attention to a conflict that he felt was morally wrong.

Although Reverend King’s work took place within communities, the nature of his efforts differed depending on the issues. In August, 1966, King commenced his first major protest in a northern city when he led a protest for fair housing and integration in Chicago. While some might predict that marching north of the Mason-Dixon Line would be easier or more welcome than in the South, King’s foray into the Windy City proved otherwise. As soon as he exited his car, King was struck in the head by a rock and required the protection of his aides from hurled bricks and bottles. King remarked “I have never seen, even in Mississippi, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago.” While the movement was designed to address particularities of Chicago’s housing patterns, the results were generally mixed; there was greater attention now paid to inequities but residential segregation in the community remained.

As we know, responsible leadership can manifest itself in a myriad of ways. Perhaps one example from King’s life was his trips to Memphis in March and April, 1968 to support the sanitation workers in their struggle for better working conditions. After two workers were crushed in a sanitation truck, laborers went out on strike. When a protest led by King and others on March 28th turned violent, King called off the march. Although King considered not returning to Memphis, in the end, he felt the need to return and lead a non-violent march to prove that this form of civic action could work. Sadly, we are all too aware of what followed.

Whether it was achieving excellence in his academic career, speaking out on the ethics of war, responding to a community’s housing patterns, or putting himself in harm’s way to demonstrate the power of nonviolent protest, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life can teach us to live out Keystone’s core values in our own lives. The spirit of his movement was with us as we walked on Monday; we can be proud of our students and their efforts to realize his work in today’s world.

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