Listening to the Eyes

The eyes are windows to the soul. What could be more obvious? We look through our eyes onto the world, and we look through the eyes of others into their minds.

The ability to read the messages that young people communicate with their eyes can often be as important as deciphering their words. That is – if we take the time to listen.

The following is a gentle reworking of a post I originally published in April 2016. Something inside told me it was time to publish it again.

It happened to me again last week.

As I walked the halls of one of my district schools, I caught that unmistakable look in the eye of a child. As a middle school principal for more than a dozen years, I had seen it many times before, in the glancing looks and pained expressions of far too many young people.

There was a time ten or twenty years ago I might have missed it or just chalked it up to some kid going through normal adolescent angst. Even if I had noticed it, I may have just referred him to the counselor and went on with my daily routine.

That was before my brother died after having his life truncated by the scourge of drugs and alcohol. Before I realized it was getting too late to intervene or even tell him how much I loved him.

That was before I took the time to remember the contributions of a special teacher from my high school years. Before he tragically took his own life a decade later. Before I had the chance to share with him just how much his extra efforts had meant to me and how he had changed my life.

That was before a seemingly happy, carefree eighth-grade student at my middle school went home one day, ate dinner with his family, cleaned his room, put on his “Sunday best,” lay down in bed, and pulled the trigger of a gun. Before an inconsolable mother asked me a few weeks later, “Did you see or notice anything at school that might help us understand why our beautiful boy would want to die?”

I didn’t have an answer.

I have no answers for why people choose to engage in destructive behaviors or make the fateful decision to end their lives prematurely. I have no special training or expertise in this area. I do know we are fortunate to have highly skilled counselors and social workers to help our children navigate the trials of life in a fast-moving, often disorienting society.

At the same time, I hope each of the experiences described above have made me more observant, more discerning, more compassionate, more reflective, and more, well .  .  .  human.

Anyhow, back to the child I saw in the hall last week. He wore that look on his face.

It was a mixture of sadness, anger, and despair.

It was obviously not this child, but his expression was eerily similar.

angry boy

Do you see it?

I asked him if he was okay. He walked on without a response.

I turned and caught up with him. I introduced myself and said, “I know you don’t know me, but you look upset and I just wanted to see if there was anything I could do to help.”

His response was a curt, “I’m fine.”

Yet what I heard was more like, “I’m sad, hurt, anxious, depressed, lonely, misunderstood, insignificant, ugly, unlovable, broken, dying insi.., Fine!

Can you see it in the look of this young lady? She would likely say she was fine, too.

sad girl

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that every child who is sad or angry or somehow disjointed is suicidal or dangerous. It is perfectly fine and normal to experience the emotions of sadness and frustration, as they are part of life.

The vast majority of children (and adults) we encounter in our schools would never think of harming another person or themselves.

At the same time, it is a painful symptom of too many dysfunctional young lives.

The statistics on youth suicide are alarming. According to the CDC, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year. For every suicide among young people, there are at least 100 suicide attempts. Over 14 percent of high school students have considered suicide, and almost 7 percent have attempted it.

Seven out of every 100. That number is absolutely staggering to me.

So, when people say our primary job in schools is to increase student achievement, I respectfully disagree. The act of creating learners only occurs in an atmosphere of respect, trust, compassion, and love.

Thus, our biggest job is to keep kids safe, while instilling in them a profound belief that we genuinely care about who they are and what they dream to be.

So, when I walk anywhere in a school, I look for the look–that look of despair, the look of sadness, the look of capitulation.

Most of the time, the look doesn’t reflect anything but an occasional bout of sadness. Maybe a bullying situation, an argument with a friend, a poor grade on a test, or a challenge at home.

After the boy I stopped shared with me how he had just failed a test and might have to take summer school, I suggested he speak with his teacher and see if he could come in after school and study what he had missed and possibly retake the test. He said his teacher would let him do that and that he was just mad at himself for not doing better.

I told him a story of my failing a major exam in college and how I could understand how he felt. I told him to not be so hard on himself and just continue to do his best.

He smiled, shook my hand, and thanked me for talking with him.

The look was gone from his face.

That was the most important thing I did the entire week. And thousands of educators in schools across America do the same thing every day.

Sometimes you just need to tell someone things aren’t as terrible as they think they are.

Sometimes you just need to be there to listen.

We often tell kids, “Don’t give me that look.”

But, maybe we need to see the look, and take the time to understand the look … to listen to the eyes.

You may just change a life. It might be yours.

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3 thoughts on “Listening to the Eyes

  1. Sometimes you just want to hug them and ask if you can do anything to help.
    Now day you can’t do that or someone is seeing it in the wrong way.

  2. I appreciate the educators who take the time to really connect with students. My hat is off to you.

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