To the Adirondack Journal:
Your article about the death of Brent Bertrand, the teacher (and so much more) at Warrensburg High School, touched my heart.
I am surrounded by kids like those who wrote so eloquently on the memorial wall, and it is they who warm my soul.
There was a study done recently of adults who had stressful upbringings, yet overcame the obstacles and built fulfilling lives. The researchers sought out common factors in the lives of their subjects.
What they found (I could have saved them a lot of money — it is detailed in my book) is that every one of them had at least one person there for them, nurturing them, listening to them, whether they were teachers, clergy, friends or neighbors. They were listening to them without judgement, which, of course, closes doors to communication.
Brent Bertrand was one of those people. Why aren't there more teachers who are there for our struggling youth? I will answer this question with an allegory.
I am friends with a young woman who was excited to enter the field of Education for which she studied and felt prepared. She recognized how powerful a role she could play in the lives of young people, and she accepted a teaching position at a poor, underfunded school.
Her first class had 51 students, all of whom were forced to enter a Regents program (the school had only recently dropped the non-Regents curriculum, which was a death knell for many of the children). It was stressed to her that she must “stay on course” and not be distracted by too many “questions” or “diversions” from the children. In other words, generating excitement for her subject, World History, would slow things up, and certainly listening to, and nurturing a student through hardship would distract from her teaching. The fact both would surely enhance the learning process was irrelevant.
We lost her to another profession, just as we have lost so many other exciting, enthusiastic teachers. (Others stay, but are guided by their disillusionment.) We lost many youth as well who would have been the beneficiaries of her deep caring.
When are we going to wake up to the damage we are doing to our youngsters in the name of the funding stream?
When will we start listening to our youth, as Brent Bertrand found the time to do, and have our programs incorporate their needs, desires and aspirations?
When will we create an educational atmosphere that encourages curiosity, and nurtures the process of learning, instead of racing mindlessly to the top? In that race, many children are “left behind.” Only then will I will no longer receive late night calls from youth who tell me that they can't take it anymore and want to end their life.
Here is a good start. Some of the postings on Mr. Bertrand's wall that you cite were, “You made every student feel like they were important... ,” “You moved every heart and touched every soul... ,” You were the reason I survived school,” “You inspired me....”
Think about what they are saying, then hold a student forum (call it the “Bertrand Forum”) where you encourage them to expand on their thoughts.
Next, with a panel of young people at your side, incorporate all that you have learned into your planning. You will be amazed at their insights.
I'll help because I do not ever again want to learn that one of my kids took her life, because the stress was too great.
(Editor’s Note: Irv West has more than 40 years experience counseling at-risk youth and serving as their advocate, as well as working tirelessly for greater understanding among generations — and for change in institutions that serve youth.)