A bright part of every teacher’s day is getting to the class that your star student is in. You know the one. We see them reach for the sky every time we ask the class a question, they volunteer their personal time to help us staple packets, and they befriend the quiet kid during partner activities. They are just pure perfection! 

 

And sometimes that perfection can be the issue. They take on any task or responsibility they can to accelerate in their academics, extracurriculars, or relationships with teachers and others. They pack their time after school and head off to part-time jobs that will help them write a great college entrance essay. They lead our student government, lead pep rallies, and cover every football game for the yearbook. For a 14- to 18-year-old, that’s a lot. 

 

Bright students need to care for their mental health just like other students, even if they seem to be handling it fine in our teacher-eyes. In Kind of Sort of Fine by Spencer Hall, Hayley, one of the two main characters, is this student. One day during school she drives through the loop and stops her car in front of the building and has a mental breakdown in front of everyone. She refuses to leave her car or move it; the police have to be called; and she has to be escorted away from school for a while. It was humiliating, but it forced Hayley to take a step back and become healthier, which means lightening her load during her senior year—a very important year for scholarships and college applications, and something she’s worked endlessly on for years. 

 

Through mandatory counseling and quitting her extracurriculars, including the tennis team (her home away from home), Hayley begins a journey she never wanted, but really needs—a change of pace and prioritizing her health. In chapter five, Hayley attends one of her counseling sessions with Dr. Kim, who prompts her to think about what she can control and what she cannot. (Especially all the judgmental stares and whispers happening when she walks into a room.) Upon hearing that she has to take a huge step back, including taking TV Production instead of AP-level classes, from her normal life schedule, Hayley isn’t too thrilled.

 

I don’t like stepping back; I like moving forward. In sixth grade there was a reading challenge at my school. Every kid who read twenty-five books or more by the end of the year got an award. They made a special plaque for me because I read seventy-nine books, easily lapping the other kids in my class. At the awards assembly, the principal slapped my shoulder and said, “This girl’s got ambition.” That’s who I’ve always been, a girl with ambition. “I don’t want to slow down too much,’ I say. “The early bird gets the worm, you know?”... “It feels like things are slipping through my fingers. I can’t even control my own schedule.” (Hall 33)

 

Let’s do the same activity that Dr. Kim had Hayley do—listing and drawing conclusions about things you can and can’t control.

 

  • Get a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle vertically. Then list things about school that you can and can’t control. A few examples are shown below to get you started.

 

Things I Can Control

What I wear

How I engage in class

What I say to people

How I treat people

How I label people

Things I Can’t Control

The weather

How much homework is assigned

What others think of me

What others say to/about me

How others label me

If people like me

 

  • If your class is interested in sharing their lists, you can create a comprehensive list on the board by calling on volunteers or each group. 

 

  • After you have a good list on the board, make the point that Dr. Kim makes after Hayley completes this activity: 

There you go. I understand high school isn’t easy. There’s academic pressure and social pressure, but look at your board. You have power, Hayley. The same power you’ve always had is still inside you. If you don’t like the way the system operates, you have the power to be a source of change. (Hall 35)

 

  • After this group unpacking, have students reflect about why focusing on things they CAN control is healthier than focusing on things they CAN’T control. Use the questions below as prompts if students struggle to journal. 
    • What surprised you about the list you made? Why was it surprising?
    • What is something you wrote down that you need to do more of to make you a more mentally healthy person? 
    • Why do you think focusing on what you CAN control is better than what you CAN’T control? 
    • Would you ever consider counseling to help you lead a more balanced and healthy life in high school? Why or why not?

 

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Jennifer Dryden is a high school English and journalism teacher in Des Moines, Iowa. She is a part of the LGBTQ+ community and advocates for queer youth any way she can, including running her school’s Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA). She has a passion for reading and making lame jokes to her students just to see them laugh or roll their eyes. She just concluded her eighth year teaching. Dryden graduated from Iowa State University with a BS in journalism and mass communication (2010) and BA in English Education (2013). She attended New York University’s Summer Publishing Institute (2010), and spent some time in children’s book publishing in New York.