Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Are you smarter than a 3rd grader?

Last week, I was invited to speak to 100 third graders in The Spanish School, a program of St. Louis Language Immersion Schools where I work. As the Director of Development, I don't typically spend instructional time with the children. Currently, the students are learning a unit on the human body & health and had just completed a section on the cardiovascular system. The 3rd grader teachers thought I would be the perfect example of how things are always how they look (i.e. I look healthy but in reality am a nearly three year heart attack survivor).

Let me tell you something - I generally suffer from a bit of stage fright before I speak in front of anyone.  It goes away the minute I open my mouth but ugh - stage fright is the worst feeling. Speaking to three classes of 8 year olds is as terrifying as presenting to a room of hundreds. Children are totally unpredictable. With adults, you know what they're going to ask - How often do you exercise? What do you cook at home? How are you feeling today? With kids, anything goes and you'll probably be asked the craziest-yet-most-pertinent questions. Also, I can barely manage my two year old (check out our recent interview for proof) - and he's just one kid.

So I prepared a powerpoint presentation that included the following slides:
  • Who am I? (Me & My family)
  • SCAD & My Heart Attack
  • How my life changed
  • Taking action for yourself
  • Taking action for others
I explained - in the least scary terms possible - what happened to me and how my lifestyle changed because of it. Not one of those kids made a peep while I was talking. I went on to share actions they could take to be healthy - eat lots of fresh food like fruits and veggies, don't do drugs/smoke cigarettes, get exercise, stop drinking soda (which was met with the most resistance) and go to the doctor every year for a check-up. I made suggestions about how they could help others - be an example for your siblings and friends, encourage others to exercise with you, share what you're learning with an adult and don't be afraid to call 911 if someone is in trouble. I definitely had to qualify that last statement with the addendum that "trouble" does not include your mom freaking out over a football game or your dad oversleeping.

Then...... I asked for their questions. A few brave souls shot their hands in the air with proud statements - My grandma does the heart walk every year! I do Jump Rope for Heart in gym class! I am a vegetarian! But, as proud as these kids were, there were four times as many children who timidly stated:
  • I've asked my mom/dad/stepdad/aunty, maw-maw/pops to stop smoking because I love them and they won't do it. My clothes always smell stinky.
  • When my parents pick me up from school, we always stop for fast food because it's easier and they're tired.
  • My older brother/sister/cousin never wants to do anything fun with me - they just want to watch TV or play video games.
  • My granny is so overweight and she smokes. I'm scare she's going to die - I even told her that but she hasn't changed.
And all these kids gawking at me because I'm The Lady in Red with ALL the ANSWERS.

I'm used to writing for/speaking to rooms full of adults who are moved by my story and who I hope will maybe make one change in their life for their health - but who really knows how often that happens. Do we ever really REALLY know if our actions make a difference? Every once in awhile, someone will tell me how my candid approach to sharing my story of heart disease encouraged them to make a change or embrace something new - and I really hope those decisions stick. I encouraged the students to keep pressing on with the adults in their lives because, as we all know, change is hard. They could not conceive of giving up soda - just like their loved ones wouldn't want to give up cigarettes or convenience foods. I did the best I could to encourage them not to give up and that while they were still young, they were capable of taking action on something they found important.

But their urgent questions continue to nag at me and have given me pause. Is it enough to change for ourselves? Is it enough to change for our spouse or child or other loved one? What does it take to make a change? Do you have to have a heart attack or liver disease or some other horrible illness to really get perspective? Are convenience and bad habits of more value than a healthy, full life? I want these kids to Go Red with me in celebration of life and heart health - not in memory of someone they lost.

“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them” ― Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry

“While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.”
― Angela Schwindt