Jesse’s Story - A Search for Connection and Belonging: An Educational Perspective - by Tom Boland, with contributions by Courtney Henny and Kelly Green

Jesse O’Neil, age 5, kite-flying on the shores of Lake Superior, with his beloved ‘Sleeping Giant’ in the background. “The sky’s the limit!”

Jesse O’Neil, age 5, kite-flying on the shores of Lake Superior, with his beloved ‘Sleeping Giant’ in the background. “The sky’s the limit!”

Last week, I attended the funeral of a young man, a young man who left this world too soon, not knowing the impact that his death would have on so many, and sadly, also not understanding the impact that his short life would have on so many. Jesse O’Neil was the nephew of my close friend Kelly. Having met him on only two occasions, I didn’t know him well; I attended the funeral to support Kelly, never imagining that I would be so very moved and enlightened by the ‘Story of Jesse’.  

Listening to friends and family talk about him, it quickly became obvious that Jesse had struggled for many of his 34 young years – something I would not have supposed when I met him just 6 months earlier. He and I had spent a couple of days chatting while I helped him to install a new floor for his Auntie Kelly. I know now that Jesse was very good at helping others, but not always good at asking for help himself; at least not out loud.

To say that I was moved by Jesse’s sister’s eulogy would be putting it beyond mildly. Courtney spoke about her brother with love and respect, through tears and the occasional chuckle, and shared his joys, his passions and his successes in life. Perhaps more importantly though, she spoke with gut wrenching openness and honesty about his struggles, his demons, and his incredible will to overcome them. She began with a faint memory of seeing her newborn brother through the nursery window and thinking in her almost 3-year old mind, “Oh, he’s my baby. I will take good care of him always.” If only she could have. That task would outgrow her as it outgrew many of the people in his life, sadly some of his teachers among them – more on that later.

Jesse became the sweet little brother who was always one-upped by his big sister, never managing to be the first to find the Easter eggs, always a couple of steps behind. He was both quirky and hilarious – without trying to be either. It soon became apparent that most things would not come easily to this accident-prone child. As Courtney spoke about her brother’s childhood, the educator in me considered what his experience at school might have been like. She described him as someone who typically worked twice as hard, but never quite mastered things the way that most of his classmates did. Despite this, at least in the early years, he always gave his all, often without knowing or understanding how to ask for the support he needed. Out of school, he literally struggled to stay on his feet, not topple over handlebars or trip over sidewalk cracks. In school he figuratively struggled to stay on his feet, working harder than most to stay focused, regulated and engaged. Although he generally did well in those early years, his teachers often saw his struggles as a lack of effort and his hyperactivity as a distraction to learning. Having to put more effort into most aspects of school would eventually become tiring, eventually impacting his academic success and self-confidence. 

In hindsight, much of Jesse’s school experience was challenging; he was a part of an education system that placed too much value on promoting academic achievement while paying too little attention to its students’ emotional safety, sense of belonging and overall well-being. I wondered, as I listened to Courtney speak, how her brother’s path might have been altered if more of his teachers had taken the time to really get to know him in genuine and authentic ways; if they had helped him to discover his own unique potential and supported his overall development, rather than focusing so much on primarily academic pursuits. Through hard work and persistence, Jesse did well in primary and junior grades, but during intermediate and high school he began to struggle; he seemed to be losing interest and disconnected to school. I don’t know anything about Jesse’s educators; Courtney didn’t mention them with any degree of specificity. As such, I am generalizing when I wonder whether many of his school experiences were more frustrating than they should have been, resulting in him often feeling like a square peg being forced into a round hole … one that despite his continued and exhausting efforts, he would never truly fit into.

Most people would agree that a certain degree of stress actually promotes learning. That said, when stress becomes anxiety and students are unable to self-regulate, they are often unable, (very different from unwilling), to engage in the very active process of learning and discovery. I found myself wondering if Jesse might have been more able to engage in those later years if some of his teachers had simply known him better. I wondered I they had known him well enough to hear and understand his struggles and his silent pleas for individual support. I wondered as well, how many other Jesses were out there. Later in life, Jesse would become an excellent plumber, a path that obviously required dedication, rigor, intelligence and perseverance, and yet his high school experience would suggest that he generally lacked such qualities. Perhaps the bigger problem was that Jesse struggled by then to find meaning and purpose in school.

Back to the early years … Jesse wasn’t all quirks and clumsiness. As a child he excelled at hockey and loved downhill skiing; both made him feel alive, free, and exhilarated. He could be both aggressive and graceful, but more than anything, he had a gentle soul. He was also a talented and creative writer, often expressing personal thoughts that held deep and wondrous meaning. He often struggled, however, to put his words on to paper. Writing was difficult for Jesse, the thoughts in his head didn’t always match what came out on paper. Words attempted to transfer from his mind faster than his hand could scribe them; the thoughts were there, the ability to transfer them to paper was often not. As such, his creative talent for expressing himself often went unnoticed by teachers and was subsequently stunted rather than encouraged. I listened to Courtney and again found myself wondering how his experience with education might have been different had his teachers recognized his true potential, his creativity and love of expression, and therefore nurtured his abilities as opposed to over-focusing on his struggles and inabilities. The purpose of education should be tied more to overall human development, as opposed to always being tied to grade-specific, academic achievement and specific outcomes. As educators, I thought as I listened to her speak, we need to spend more time helping all students to discover their unique potential, and then supporting them along their unique paths of development. That should be our focus; that should be the ‘why’ of teaching.

Supporting Jesse was not always easy for Courtney. As teenagers, they sometimes struggled to connect with each other, with family, or simply to stay on path and walk the balance of those often-perilous teenage years. Courtney recalled that although they had shared similar anxieties and experiences, Jesse’s was always ‘just a few feet deeper’. Oddly, she often felt like the lucky one, “not only because I had a few solid friends to hold me up” she said, “but because I had him to look out for”. But despite her understanding that life was more challenging for her young brother, she doesn’t remember any instances where extra efforts were made by the education system to provide needed support. Just like it was not always easy for Courtney to support Jesse, it was likely not always easy for his teachers; but it was nonetheless their role. In fact, Courtney recalls how it seemed strange to her that teachers often spent more time with her, and others like her for whom success came more easily, than they did with the Jesses of the world. It seemed somehow ironic to her that the ones who needed more individual support, were the ones who got less, likely because that type of individual support was more difficult to provide. It seemed to her that the Jesses of the world, unsure of how to ask for help, were too often left struggling, regularly falling through cracks, and seldom reaching their true potential.

The older Jesse got, the more the world around him seemed to marginalize him and then use that marginalization as an excuse not to be able to fully support, let alone understand him. When someone is told something often enough, whether explicitly or implicitly, eventually they begin to believe it. Somewhere along the line, the seeds of failure and hopelessness were planted – seeds that would take many years to grow, and sadly be nurtured at times by the unintended consequences of well intended actions of teachers. Jesse stopped asking for support when it become apparent that most high school educators either couldn’t hear his often-silent pleas for help, or simply didn’t know how to support him. At some point he slowly began to give up on himself and school. Courtney remembers becoming even more of a caregiver and protector, remembering on one occasion sitting in the principal’s office, swearing at the man who dared to trash talk her brother for skipping school, not seeing his enormous potential and sweet, caring spirit, and most importantly, not seeing how desperately he was struggling. Not hearing his desperate but silent plea for help, and not seeing how assuredly he was slipping through the cracks. Jesse had loved school; didn’t they understand that he had only skipped because school was no longer loving him back?

Jesse changed during those years – not from the kind, sensitive, generous young man he’d become, but from the young boy filled with hope and trust. While school should be a transformational experience for all children, it should never be transformational in the ways that it was for Jesse. He began to give up on his ability to succeed at what our system of education too often defines as success. He struggled to feel any sense of positivity, self-efficacy and self-confidence when it came to school, and when he couldn’t find it at school, he began to look elsewhere for meaning and purpose. He felt less and less like he belonged to a school community, less comfortable, less safe. And without the reassurance that should have come from genuine student-teacher relationships, Jesse began to feel like a failure.

Somewhere along the line, maybe because he felt unable to help himself, Jesse became passionate about helping others. His kindness to others was usually masked in quiet humility, but it was nonetheless visible to those who knew him best. Courtney saw the good he was doing, always helping friends and family, dropping everything to be where he felt he was needed, helping with building projects, cleaning out gutters, or sitting next to a homeless person on a sidewalk, lending an empathic ear while listening to stories of struggle and pain. This would become who Jesse was, perhaps his truest calling - helping others. Jesse felt at ease with people who didn’t know his story. He felt un-judged, unknown, and stronger with them. As I listened to Courtney talk about her brother’s transformation, I reflected on what incredible gifts and strengths he had, the stuff that heroes are made of. I thought about how incredibly sad it was that he was not able to see in himself what others saw. And then I wondered again how Jesse’s experience at school could have helped him to celebrate his true self, his identity, his gifts, if systemically we did a better job of really getting to know our students. Instead, despite well-meaning educators, his experience at school had contributed to a lack of self worth and an inability to cope as the world around him got smaller and smaller, more and more difficult to navigate, and offered him less and less hope. Jesse undoubtedly had some wonderful teachers, some of whom he cherished and many who no doubt cherished him. I’m not suggesting that his specific teachers failed him; only that perhaps our system somehow failed him, by not instilling enough positivity in the attributes that made up this incredible young man’s potential. To know a child’s potential, you need to know the child. Relationships.

Jesse lived a complicated life. Writing this article is not about blame; it’s certainly not about blaming his teachers or his schools. It’s about reflecting on our system and our ability, indeed our responsibility, as educators to ensure that school, JK through Grade 12, is a positive experience for all children, built on a foundation of really getting to know each and everyone of those children, and then helping them to be the best that they can be. School is not solely about delivering a curriculum; it’s about helping children to develop within the confines of a safe, positive, stimulating environment that nurtures all possibilities. School wasn’t the sole determining factor that ultimately caused Jesse to give up on himself, but sadly it also wasn’t the safe and nurturing place where Jesse’s identity and his dreams would be discovered, encouraged and nurtured. It needs to be that. Jesse’s life was impacted by mental illness and addiction, issues that resulted in a search for connection and a longing for a void to be filled or a wound to be healed. He longed for a sense of belonging and stability. This article is not suggesting that educators should be mental health counsellors or therapists, only that the better we know our students, the more able we will be to purposefully connect with them in meaningful ways, and the more effective we will be at helping them to develop to their full potential and navigate their unique paths.  

On the issues of mental health, inside and outside of our roles as educators, the stigma is beginning to die; as Courtney says, “It needs to die hard and fast”. We cannot help the Jessies of the world if they continue to be afraid to reach out. That said, we need to recognize their cries for help. Amidst his pain and turmoil, Jesse did reach out, many times, and there were many glimpses of hope over the years. He fought the good fight, but when the scales tipped too far against him, the weight was too heavy for him to bare, and there was no coming back. As an educator, I wonder how many students like Jesse are right in front of us everyday, in the midst of our classrooms and mutely screaming for help. I believe that the key is relationship … genuinely getting to know our kids. The kindness of a smile; the gentleness of calm reassurance; the persistent nurture of encouragement. We may never know how our intentional relationships and acts of kindness will impact a child’s life, but rest assured the impact will be positive and the child will remember.   

Children were important to Jesse. Courtney reflected that for him they represented hope. Hope for the Earth, hope for humanity, hope to keep beauty and magic alive. He once told one of his youngest cousins at Christmas time, “Hold on to the magic, Kate”, and he meant it in a way she probably didn’t entirely grasp at the time. Maybe his hope for children was born out of surrendering hope for himself. Growing out of his childhood hadn’t been a wonderful experience for Jesse. Having a kind and giving nature, coupled with a somewhat broken spirit, he didn’t wish such experiences on others. As educators, perhaps we are in a position to help Jesse pass on his hopes for future generations, ideally so that no child will be turned off of school because they don’t feel like they belong, or because they aren’t able to feel successful. School needs to be a positive, valuable, meaningful experience for everyone. The first step toward making that a reality is simple … it’s about caring; caring enough to know every child, love every child and support every child in everything we say and do, especially those children who make it most difficult to know, love and support them. Every interaction with every child is and opportunity to build a positive and trusting relationship – or not. Of course, we can’t be everything to everyone, but we owe it to each and every one of our students to try.

In Courtney’s words, “Good will come of this, in many ways. Many lives will be better because Jesse lived, and sadly, also because he died. Reach out to those you love, and those you think you don’t, and love them hard and out loud. Don’t do it silently or from a distance. And don’t wait.” I think she would be ok with me adding that if you happen to be an educator, make a genuine effort to know every one of your students. Help them to discover their own unique, strengths and abilities and then support them along their pathways whatever they may be. And finally, don’t ever underestimate the critical importance of belonging and connection, or the remarkable impact that your relationships with them might ultimately have on their lives! 

Rest in peace Jesse.  

Tom Boland2 Comments