how to survive the heartbreak of high school

There was this student.

His name was Brandon.

And he was super talented.

He could balance ALL of his textbooks on his head at once. He could also walk up several sets of stairs with those SAME books on his head. He walked that way to every class. All this in a crowded high school hallway. All day long. Every day.

If Brandon lived in a country where it was necessary to carry water jars on his head for survival, he would never go thirsty. Brandon amazed me.

But every day, every single day, the same thing happened.

You know what it is. You’ve already seen the picture in your own non-book-stacking head.

Kids hit, swatted, and plain old slammed into those books, sending them flying in all directions, banging into lockers, sliding down the hallway, spreading out like angry peacock feathers everywhere.

Then they would laugh, guffaw, slap each other on the back, and walk away.

Multiple times a week I would see him, gathering up his textbooks and notebooks, papers flung all over the floor in an awkward array, flayed open like a dissected frog.

And then he silently stacked them and put them right back on his head.

While smiling.

This kid faced adversity – always. Kids never seemed to get it. I mean, sometimes there were the occasional onlookers who lifted the obligatory book for Brandon to diligently place back on his head. But they were mostly bystanders, just watching the parade go by.

It didn’t matter to them because it wasn’t happening to them.

And it scared them because Brandon was able to do something most high schoolers can’t. In fact, something most people can’t.

Be different.

And this wasn’t “good” different – like hipster I wear big black glasses and slouchy clothes like everyone else but it’s different – different (ahem. I have big black glasses).

In a bustling corridor full of students, Brandon stuck out like a scarecrow in an empty field. You could see the books coming even before you saw Brandon.

But what changed me, what blessed me, what impacted me was his persistence.

Because let’s be honest. At some point I would have just stopped trying.

It was always the same pattern: Books on head. Books knocked down. Books picked up. Books on head. It sounds like a very sad Dr. Seuss book.

But…his smile.

Brandon was proud of his talent. He wasn’t going to hide it because it wasn’t the way to do things in our school. He wasn’t going to change it because those cool guys thought he was stupid. He wasn’t going to give up when people relentlessly, ruthlessly, attacked his unique ability.

I did see Brandon cry once, in a vulnerable moment – when he honestly shared his feelings with someone he trusted. And that’s okay. Crying. Trusting someone with your real hurts. You should do that.

One of my heroes, Jacqui Saburido, had most of her body burned in an automobile accident. She says she gives herself 5 minutes a day to feel sorry for herself. And then it’s off to the races. It’s okay to mourn your situation. Vent to someone you trust.

But don’t stay there. Because it eats you up. Brandon didn’t stay there. If he was eaten alive his book stacking would rest in peace at the library and he would sacrifice his joy.

No way.

And there were people, adults, who advocated for him. Advocated for change. Monitored the halls, slowed down the book knocking.

And he didn’t stop stacking. Or walking. Or climbing those steps. Or picking up those books.

I saw him get better, not bitter.

By the time Brandon graduated I swear he was carrying more books on his head than I can carry in my arms – or even in my book bag.

Brandon accepted who he was. And he embraced it. He wasn’t defensive. He knew who his cheerleaders were. He saw the end goal, that his immediate and pressing problems wouldn’t last forever. He knew what was important and what wasn’t.

I’m not saying he never cried into his pillow, screaming angry words. I’m not saying he wasn’t tempted – just once in awhile – to take one of those books and throw it at one of those mean, unsuspecting perpetrators.

Sometimes I wonder if Brandon saw past the ugly masks of those kids and saw their hurting hearts. I wonder if he knew and understood that most of the time, the actions of others have absolutely nothing to do with us and everything to do with them. I wonder if Brandon knew he would send a message through peace rather than power.

And a lot of times, I wish I could talk to Brandon today. Tell him just how proud I was (and still am) of his bravery, his resilience, the lessons he instilled in many.

The other day I addressed 300 students in a RAKtivist (random acts of kindness activists) club meeting.

I talked about Brandon and the impact he left on my life – to tell the kids they aren’t alone. They aren’t isolated. They can be brave. They can be persistent. They can be resilient.  High School isn’t forever. It’s four years of a really long life.

When Brandon got knocked down, he got back up again.


How do you rise above all the high school heartbreak?

I think Brandon just showed you.

Maybe it’s time you pick up those books, put them back on your head, and start walking.

I love my job. Teaching is my passion. My students? Passion PLUS. Read about why you don’t need a boyfriend or girlfriend in high school here. 

Then read about the time I actually swapped places with a student. Seriously. It was awesome.

Teenagers are seriously on fleek (yep, I said it). Here’s what they did when I gave a bunch of ’em a dollar and told them to make a difference.

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