As this school year began I sat in a staff meeting. The school counselor clicked and a slide showing behaviors and warning signs of suicidal students. I shifted in my seat, the descriptors painted a picture of me from my teenage years well into my 20’s. My colleagues sitting in the presentation with me didn’t know how many of those checkboxes I owned.

I was hesitant to share my story with Mariangela for Faces of Fortitude, if I put my story out there and my school community saw it, would families or colleagues that I work with view me as someone who isn’t fit to teach? Would it change how they see me? The only way to break that stigma, and my own fear, was to put my story out there — even the upbeat elementary teacher has battled with mental illness. Only by sharing stories of the good, bad and the ugly can we build bridges that make asking for help and supporting those around us normal.

Mariangela talks about the idea of humans having hot coals they hang onto. As a teenager I tried to hand my hot coals off and quickly learned it was better for me to hold onto them. The times I tried to hand them off were met with explanations about why I must feel that way, why I shouldn’t feel that way or that I was being a dramatic teenager. Sitting down with M, she was ready to take the hot coals without judgement with her pen and paper. These hot coals, the stories and the hurt that I shouldn’t talk about and always felt made me a broken person, were falling out of me at a rate I couldn’t control.

Heather – Faces of Fortitude Session Portrait

M made me realize that while I thought my hot coals were burning me up inside, they were also becoming the fuel that fires my drive to make sure every student I work with is taken care of. Thanks to M holding my coals, I can continue to hold on to the hot coals my students and their families trust me with.

After my story went online in May, I nervously showed it to my school counselor. I had pushed my fear aside, I talked to M and now what would people think? The counselor read and looked at my photos and said, “maybe I can use this with the older kids somehow.” I feel lucky and grateful that M began this project that has let me stretch myself as a human and a teacher.