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Students share life stories, learn respect

Roseville High School class gives insight into struggles of today's teens
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Climate change is happening at Roseville High School and it’s of the human-made variety.

Students in the school’s peer helping class are trying to create a more positive campus vibe by spreading an anti-bullying message. They want their classmates to stop judging and hurting each other.

To do this, the 120 teenagers in teacher Valerie Erb’s three classes dig deep and share their own life stories. The lesson plan describes this as “autobiographical speaking,” but it’s more of a group therapy session.

In a recent second period peer helping class, Erb lists some of the stuff teenagers deal with on the board: bullies, racism, finding purpose, foster care, break ups, poverty, divorce, fear, vandalism, rape, gangs, eating disorders, abandonment and more.

The storytelling provides sobering insight into the struggles and heartache of today’s teenagers. Common themes emerge — stories of broken homes, frayed relationships with parents, alcoholism, forays into drug use.

Another theme emerges, too. These students cloak one another in hugs, love and words of encouragement as they learn about their peers from inside-out.

Sharing their stories

Senior Louie Sanchez, 17, walks to the front of the room and begins his story as a baby.

“I guess my parents weren’t all there and my dad walked out on me,” he says.

Sanchez describes a good life with adoptive parents before his mom died from cancer when he was 4. He moved around as a child — Texas, Arizona, Montana and California. Then his dad went away for a couple days.

“Those couple days turned into a couple weeks and those weeks turned into a couple months,” Sanchez says.

His father was in the hospital and soon passed away. What followed for Sanchez was crime, experimenting with illegal substances and poor grades.

“I don’t even know if I’m going to graduate this year,” Sanchez says.

His classmates tell him they’ll always be there to support him.

“You are an over-comer,” Erb says. “We can all learn so much from you … You’ve lost so much but you still come in every day and make us laugh.”

Sanchez’s nephew Dominik Quilala talks about his older brother’s struggle with gangs and drugs, and his quest to win his approval. Last year, his brother ran away from home.

“People say, ‘Why don’t you just wear pants?’ Because my shorts sag,” Quilala says. “They don’t understand it’s what I grew up from and when I dress like this, it makes me closer to my brother.”

He chokes up as he reflects on losing his brother, and the untimely deaths of an aunt and uncle.

“I’ve never smoked weed, I’ve never tried pills and I’ve never drank alcohol,” he says, earning applause. “I feel like that’s never the solution so I’ve never done it and I’ve vowed I’ll never do it.”

Another student recalls his parents’ divorce and his subsequent bout with cutting and suicidal thoughts. The confession prompts two guys to apologize for “not being nice” to him when they were younger.

One senior talks about her happy life as a child, before her mom lost her business, her family’s house was foreclosed and her best friend moved away.

“But I’m trying to find the positives of everything,” she says, wiping away tears.

Teaching respect

At the end of hearing their life stories, Erb adds positive words to the board: love, hope, joy, family.

“It’s kind of nerve-wracking,” Sanchez says of telling his story. “But then I started going with the flow. (My classmates’) reactions help. It made me feel better about myself.”

In a couple weeks, the peer helping students will hold an anti-bullying assembly in the gym for all ninth graders. They call it the “Respect Assembly.” Everyone’s story may be different, Erb says, but this is a chance for the campus to come together.

Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at SenaC_RsvPT.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a periodic series checking in with the second period peer helping class at Roseville High School. All articles will be available on www.rosevillept.com.

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Peer helping is an elective class at Roseville High School open to all ninth through 12th graders, designed to teach students the process of helping another person. Students learn peer leadership, peer counseling, conflict management, peer mediation, team building and other interpersonal skills.