When students go to school, what are they actually doing?
On the one hand, they’re acquiring. They’re acquiring the knowledge associated with the academic disciplines, from English and History to STEM, the arts, languages, etc. The way we talk about schooling in the US tends to focus on this, as measured by testing and standardized curricula and such. But there’s another crucial piece of work that kids are doing when they go to school.
They’re becoming. Their characters are taking shape, they’re beginning to understand themselves as unique individuals in a complex world, they’re learning their own strengths and weaknesses, and they’re working through the various elements of their identity.
“Identity” has become a politically charged word in some contexts, but the process of forming an identity is not optional. Every kid negotiates those complex waters, whether they want to or not. In my day it seemed that the categories were simpler and fewer: jocks, eggheads, artsy kids, stoners, motorheads, etc. Kids were also privately puzzling out more serious elements, of course, from faith to future to sexuality.
There has been a lot of important research done in the last few years on rates of suicidality and depression among LGBTQ+ teens, and the numbers when it comes to anxiety and depression are shockingly high. But here’s the one we all really need to know: 45% of LGBTQ+ youth in the US considered suicide in the last year, including more than half of the transgender and non-binary youth.
Why is that? I think it’s obvious that as these young people are coming to understand their identities, they’re also coming to understand that some people will condemn or even hate them for it. In some places, from municipalities to entire states, laws are being passed that codify a second-class citizenship for LGBTQ+ kids — and some schools have followed suit. Many kids respond with fear or despondency, and as the statistics show, some will consider ending it all as a result…and some do take their lives. This is a failure — a failure to support vulnerable youth, and as adults, we all share responsibility.
Frankly, we shouldn’t have to marshal statistics and arguments to convince people to support LGBTQ+ kids, but for heaven’s sake: half of them are thinking of killing themselves. We cannot turn our backs on these kids. Schools are meant to be safe havens and yet the numbers show we are not adequately supporting these students’ needs. Our nation’s LGBTQ+ kids need us to support them, they need us to welcome them, they need to know that it’s okay to be who they are.
As the adults in their lives, we have to. Kids’ lives, quite literally, depend on it.=