Since 2001, I have stood in front of over 1 million teenagers in over 2,000 public schools to present a message of hope and truth. What I’m about to say is pretty basic but very important. With all that is happening with our students and in public education, I’m asking you to read my submission entirely. You might not agree with everything, but I’ve stood in front of high schoolers long enough to walk in their shoes, hear their stories, and develop my own thoughts of what is going wrong.
Monday, February 12, 2018, two days before the Florida tragedy, I spoke at a high school that had a fatal school shooting in September of 2017. I spoke to the whole student body, grades 6-12, the staff, and to the parents. We started at 7:30 A.M. and until 9 P.M. I listened, spoke, comforted, and relived the saddest day in the school and community’s history. The day where one student decided with a simple coin flip to walk into a school and start shooting. Death, destruction, all surrounding a place that is meant for students to better themselves with knowledge. How have we gotten here?
After having direct access to students and school administrators over the past 17 years, my message is this: We can look at all the symptoms of social dysfunction ad-nauseam. We can say it’s drugs, we can say it’s guns, we can say it’s a lack of family connections, mental health, we can say social media has made things worse, movies, video games, and so on. All those things are valid and important to consider, but the simple truth is that the root of all of this is personal value.
When people don’t feel valuable, they don’t act valuable, and they certainly won’t value others. If, in your mind, it is acceptable to decide whether people that you have known most of your life will live or die depending on a coin toss, then you don’t value human life. I’m sure bullying and social profiling play a role, just like there is everywhere, but I think the student hated himself first. When I was watching the news about Florida and watched as the shooter was apprehended, I said, “That kid was dead years ago.” He already decided that life had nothing for him.
How do students get like that? How does it get that bad? I don’t know everything, but I do know this: There is a primal need in all of us to be accepted and loved, which, for better or worse, translates into our personal value. People find their identity in a family. When that family is dysfunctional or abusive, broken or absent, it does a lot of damage. If the people who live up close to you, who know you better than anyone, truly love and value you, then the natural byproduct of that is a sense of true worth. If they know your shortcomings and still believe in you, there is a security that comes from that, one that cannot be measured. But even in the best of homes, that message doesn’t always get through.
I was not a very nice person to people when I was young and in school. It changed drastically in 9th grade when someone invested in me and communicated by how they treated me that I had value. Up until that point there was wrong messaging coming to me about my value. When that changed, my benevolence was a natural byproduct of my own discovery of how valuable I was. I liked people because I liked me.
What we have seen on the news has been incredibly tragic and hard to watch, but to me the bigger tragedy is the slow death of thousands of young people who accept a lesser version of themselves because they don’t see their true value. They have got the message somehow that they are not valuable. They may not walk into school with an idea of planning an attack, but they will self-medicate with drugs, self-harm, or unhealthy relationships. This is the real epidemic that we are facing. It becomes a societal issue when enough individual people in a specific community or school accept a life that is less than their potential. When I speak my goal is not to have everyone feeling good by the time I’m done talking. We call our program Value Up for a reason. Fighting against a societal norm isn’t a feel-good message. Accepting a norm that confines them to a category or social class is easy. If you accept it, there is no fight. It’s painless, but devastating.
When people feel valuable, they act valuable and treat others that way as well. My hope is that some will walk out with a renewed sense of knowing that they need to fight for their value. That some of them will need to fight harder because they have received a message that they are not valuable by people who were supposed to value them the most. We have lost the sanctity of human life and replaced it with this performance-based value system.
I recently likened a student’s value to a piece of gold. You can’t take the value out of gold. It is intrinsic. You can abuse gold, you can neglect gold, but at the end of the day, the value never leaves. It’s built in. Now, if you took that gold and made a Rolex watch out of it, it’s more functional than a hunk of gold. It’s probably more fun to be a watch than a hunk of gold, but it’s not more valuable. We live in a world that assigns value based on performance. If we are the Rolex, then somehow we are more valuable. We send the message that your value is conditional. You have to perform to be valuable. Through the years, I have watched young people get weighed down by the constant pressure to be something in order to be valued. Some may look at young people today and call them lazy and apathetic. I see fear, not apathy. If they fail, it will destroy them, because their value is based on performance. They think not trying is better than trying and failing.
A couple of years ago I had a mom who lost her son to an overdose ask me a question that was both easy and hard to answer. After he passed away, she told me she remembered her son complaining over and over about the pressure he felt being a teenager. At that point, she had no idea that he was using drugs at all. She said that she felt bad because when he would bring up the pressure he felt he was under, she would trivialize it, because she didn’t understand it and she had been looking at it from an adult perspective. Her question to me was, “Do you know what pressure he’s talking about? Because I still don’t know.” The answer is: that performance-based value comes with an immense amount of pressure. Unfortunately the weight of that pressure might not be revealed until it’s too late.
In my pursuit to find knowledge and answers to the questions facing parents and youth, I read “A Mother’s Reckoning” by Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold, who was one of two shooters at Columbine High School back in 1999. I didn’t want to read it at first, because I didn’t want to read a bunch of excuses on how they missed what had to be obvious signs. I knew students who were killed in the Columbine tragedy, some were my youth group kids, so I have a personal connection to what happened. What I got out of the book was that the Klebold’s really tried to be good parents to Dylan. They were in his life. They went to his activities, worked on an old BMW together, went on college visits, and loved him. The disconnect was they were in his life, but they weren’t in his head. The image he projected to them was what they wanted to see, but inside his head was a kid that was severely depressed and hated himself immensely. Dylan died a long time before April 20, 1999. Here are some quotes from the book.
“I wish I would have spent much more time and energy determining the climate and culture of the school (and how appropriate it was for Dylan) than assessing it academically.”
“Unfortunately, we did not have the slightest idea what his daily life was really like at school.”
“[Back then] I would have told you that Dylan couldn’t have fooled me.”
“Given the chance to travel back in time, I would ransack every nook and cranny of my children’s rooms, looking for not just drugs or goods that we haven’t bought, but for any window into their inner lives.”
“When we search our children’s rooms or read their journals, we risk that they will feel betrayed. However, they may be hiding problems they cannot manage themselves.”
“[Dylan’s] journal revealed a vast chasm between our perception of his reality and [his] own perception of it.”
“Dylan was loved, but he did not feel loved. He was valued, but he did not feel valuable.”
“He was valued, but he did not feel valuable.”
How many young people right now are sitting on their bed dying inside because they don’t feel valuable? Their performance wasn’t good enough today on whatever stage or stages they happen to be on. Our society is under this plague of constant performance for value. I probably won’t be able to change that, but I will do my best to try and see everyone that I encounter the way God made them from the very beginning: with incredible value!
Mike Donahue- Father, Speaker, Author, Friend to 1,000's of Teens, Founder of Value-Up
For a free book or for information on Mike's message click here: https://value-up.org/