By Joyce Coronel
After an alarming uptick in teen suicides in the East Valley late last year, Kyrene educators
and students were among thousands who took action by attending a conference aimed at
“Speak Up, Stand Up, Save a Life Youth Conference,” held at Grand Canyon University this
month, drew Kyrene Superintendent Dr. Jan Vesely alongside students from Aprende and Pueblo middle schools.
“The psychiatrists were saying that when a child comes in and says he’s being bullied, you don’t ask what happened or why—just listen,” Vesely said. Such an approach tends to validate the reason for the bullying. “To me, that was huge as an educator.”
Instead, educators, parents and caring adults need to listen to students, validate their feelings and assure them of support. That’s especially important when students are struggling with depression—one of the factors often linked with suicide.
In 2013, an eighth-grade student from Aprende died by suicide. The day following the youth conference at GCU, Vesely stood outside Kyrene Middle School to greet
Jeremy Anderson, one of the featured speakers at the conference. His presentation was so powerful, Vesely said she wanted more students to hear it.
KMS eighth-graders filed into the gymnasium and took their seats on rows of benches. Unsurprisingly, they chattered, giggled and behaved as most 13-year-olds would in the company of a large gathering of their peers.
Anderson, attired in fashionably ripped jeans and a T-shirt, gripped the mic and began speaking. He paused immediately in his discourse when it became clear some students weren’t listening. “I ask for respect and I get respect,” he said, waiting briefly before continuing.
From there on out, the students—and faculty—sat in rapt attention as Anderson related an upbringing in which his teenage mother suffered the heartbreak of seeing her son engage in increasingly self-destructive behavior.
From failing in school, to fights, drug and alcohol abuse and suspensions, he seemed headed for prison or the cemetery.
“My mom was 15 when she got pregnant with me,” Anderson said. “I didn’t have a dad. I saw other kids getting picked up by their dads after school. I thought, ‘Why isn’t my dad
here?’ You think you’re a mistake. You think you’re not good enough.”
An eighth-grade teacher predicted he’d never make it in high school. In addition to the behavioral issues, he was failing and had ADHD, among other challenges.
“My mom was, like, ‘I believe in him.’ While they were speaking death to me, my mom was speaking life.”
His secondary education proceeded down a rocky road. He was expelled from his first high school and attended three different schools for ninth grade. It was at his third school where things began to turn around.
“I had a thick folder with all my suspensions and fights but these new educators refused to give up on me,” Anderson said. “I started to believe it. ‘Maybe I am smart.’ I held on to that. I wanted more out of life—I was tired of the drugs, the pain.
“I was tired of seeing my mama cry.”
Anderson went on to describe an astonishing journey through high school, college and ultimately graduate school where he earned a master’s degree. The author of seven books, he travels the world speaking to students and educators. His overarching message is one of hope combined with humility, sacrifice, gratitude and strong measure of elbow grease.
“Your DNA is not your destiny,” he told KMS students. “Your future is going to resemble the choices you make… I want to have a powerful impact on the world and you can too.”
Anderson lauded the work of educators who “could earn three times the money” in a different profession and “not have to deal with your attitude.”
He encouraged students to recognize that their teachers were there because they cared and he asked them to express their gratitude and a sincere desire to have a better attitude
Wrangler News spoke with students following Anderson’s presentation, which coincidentally took place moments before they were scheduled to begin registering for high school.
Giselo Suchlz said she found the assembly inspiring. “I felt like I will follow his steps,” Giselo said. “People have told me the same thing before but his speech was more convincing than others.”
Her classmate, Joseph Candelaria, offered a pronouncement that indicated Anderson’s words hit home: “If he can overcome that, I definitely can overcome a lot.”