Pelham Together chief: After parties, ‘we have to come from a place of caring, for all teens, whether they’re in the woods or not’

To the editor:

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage our country. Even though case counts, hospitalizations and deaths are down in our area, the stress and trauma caused by fear and uncertainty remain. We saw evidence of this last week in the public discourse surrounding the school district’s decision to postpone in-person learning following high school parties at the end of summer. I see only one way for our community to heal, and that is to act as a community. That does not mean we all need to agree, but we need to be able to speak to one another from a place of kindness, empathy, patience and respect. Otherwise, we will remain deeply divided, behaviors won’t change, and our community is broken.

None of us have lived through a global pandemic. None of us have parented through a pandemic. None of us have attended school during a pandemic. If we don’t remember that, the emotional toll of this crisis will overwhelm us when things inevitably go wrong again, and we will lose sight of the fact that we need to work together—especially when things go wrong. High school parents, unless they also have younger children, can only imagine what it has been like to support a seven-year-old managing remote learning. Elementary parents, unless they also have older children, can only imagine what it has been like to support a teenager applying to college with no visits and constantly cancelled exams. We can imagine and pass judgement. Or, we can imagine and empathize. We all need help; we could all benefit from being treated as if we’re doing our best in the face of an impossible situation. A lack of compassion for each other prevents us from acting collectively to ensure we do better next time.

I am the mother of two teenagers who also works with teens through Pelham Together. Our mission is to ensure a healthy and vibrant community for and with the youth of Pelham, through youth development and leadership opportunities, building community connection and informing parents and families of risks, like underage drinking, to our youth. So, last week’s incidents hit squarely at the center of my personal and professional world. I am so fortunate to know and work with many Pelham teens in their efforts to design service projects, community and civic campaigns, mentoring activities, entrepreneurship initiatives and youth events. I also speak to many teens who express disappointment and disillusionment with a community who they feel has stopped caring for, or even liking them, after they turn 14.

Like many adults, teens are reeling from the effect of continued loss during the pandemic. While each cancelled event or opportunity occurs for understandable reasons, these young people bear one after the other while yearning for the traditions they’ve learned are part of high school. They know it has to be different, but the sadness is real. So, they cling to things that make them feel as if everything is okay, “normal,” like being together. From proms to performances, to teams and clubs, to impromptu lunches at the deli or movies at night, to exams and college visits, to the simple joy of being together as a grade—it’s all on hold, at best, and gone, at worst. And that’s all they’ve been told. They don’t know what the alternatives are, or if there are any; they don’t see an end in sight, except, especially for the seniors, an end to high school itself. Please let that sink in for a minute—your senior year of high school, as you remember it, simply not happening.

I’m not suggesting we view the woods as a “rite of passage.” Nor am I suggesting that young people not take responsibility for their actions. I am merely describing the forces at work for a teenager making decisions during this pandemic.

So, what can we do? As adults, let’s show our teens that they still matter after elementary school—know the names of your neighbors’ high-school aged kids and ask them about their days and their lives; solicit and support teens’ ideas—not adults’ ideas for teens, but teens’ own ideas—about how they’d like to increase social opportunities in the community, such as basketball courts and coffee shops; consider taking on a teen intern or offering them a job; mentor them on a business idea, write a recommendation, or offer to practice an interview; if you’re the parent of a teen, acknowledge their need to be social and decide together on ways to do so while being safe.

As a high school and district, ask students for their ideas about alternatives to cancelled sports and clubs and ways to support their mental health; support coaches and club advisors in proactively reaching out to students; inform and involve students in discussions about a new timetable for school traditions and how they can help make them safe; elicit input and buy-in on new policies (discipline, codes of conduct, etc.).

As teenagers, wear masks; recognize the impact your actions have on your community; present a slate of ideas to the school for how to adapt Pelham Memorial High School traditions in order to make them happen; socialize in smaller groups now in order to be able to socialize as a grade later; understand that a bad decision does not make you or your peer a bad person and decide to support each other moving forward.

How a community responds in the face of a crisis speaks to its character. From the earliest days of Covid-19, Pelham showed a strength of character that made me proud to be a resident. We were there for one another, across ages, neighborhoods and politics. We still and will continue to need each other; blame and shame will prevent us from working together to protect one another’s physical and mental health. Adults and youth alike have to feel safe with one another in order to ask for what they need, to ask for help, to share ideas. If one of our goals is to change risky behaviors, we have to come from a place of caring, for all teens, whether they’re in the woods or not. If we’ve told them how awful they are—kids and parents—that leaves no room for dialogue and pushes us apart. If we regularly dismiss, or worse yet never ask, young people how they’d like to be social, acknowledging its value, and engage in a dialogue about how to do so safely, then we can’t expect them to change behavior. To quote a well-known organizing refrain, “Nothing about us, without us.” And if we do not leave our judgement at the door, then the community remains divided, unprepared to act the next time something happens. In that scenario, we’ve achieved nothing and lost so much. We can and must do better, and I truly believe this community can do that… together.

Laura Caruso

Executive Director

Pelham Together

15 Chestnut Avenue