Lena, GLP 2017

Lena’s story is part of a project entitled “Scholar Stories.” Please see this project’s portfolio page for more details and additional stories in this series.


“My finger hurts,” Lena said, in an earnest yet ill-conceived attempt to justify why she was awake – again. Up past 3 a.m. – again. And surrounded by her set of red-and-gold books – again. A bed full of books, and books full of crows, pebbles, and mostly-empty jars of water. A scene, supposedly explicable by the excuse – always the same excuse – “my finger hurts.”

Lena’s meager explanation once again earned a head-shaking acceptance. The floorboards creaked in concert with Mom’s slow return to bed, burdened by an armload of a certain set of much-loved red-and-gold bound books.

The morals and memories of these fables are nearly as vivid today for Lena as the recollections of getting lost in the stories late, late into the night. Nighttime contains different memories in different childhoods. For Lena’s, the nondescript hours between midnight and morning – unclaimed by day or night, as they’re lost in sleep for most – represented the only hours that nothing was expected of her.

Expectations followed Lena long before she had much control or say over where she went. A childhood filled with books and reading with her mother and father prepared her for success in academics, but also dug a divide between her and her classmates at the neighborhood elementary school in Calumet Heights. The ways she answered questions or participated in class earned open derision from her peers, even as she connected with many of her teachers. Those connections didn’t help her social situation any, as she quickly earned the dreaded title of “Teacher’s Pet.” In a single word, Lena describes her first grade interactions: “Vicious.”

Energetic but not naturally gregarious, Lena quickly learned to keep to herself at school and try to dodge as much ill-will as possible. She didn’t understand why the things she liked and cared about were so weird, but she knew with utter certainty that they were neither accepted nor appreciated by her classmates.

A second grade transfer to the selective Skinner West Magnet Elementary School brought some changes to her social reception, and also afforded new opportunities for study and enrichment. Lena remarks that “I still kept to myself, but I wasn’t weird anymore.”

Attending Skinner West and then Gwendolyn Brooks High School (one of the Chicago Public Schools system’s elite Selective Enrollment options) made Lena travel across Chicago and introduced her to people from neighborhoods and experiences vastly different than her own. But the more extensive journey for Lena occurred internally. Years of her preferred pursuits’ socially-established ‘weirdness’ took a toll, and Lena began to resist or shy away from the activities and interests – reading, writing, achieving in school – that had long mattered most to her. This dovetailed with her natural predisposition towards independence and a deep-seated dislike of being told what to do, and Lena become uncharacteristically resistance to her teachers’ demands. Her grades didn’t completely crater, but she wasn’t performing with the excellence others had come to expect of her. External pressure to perform was redirected inward; outwardly, Lena shut down.

Her parents’ responses and concerns expressed to Lena further eroded her self-image, and Lena talks of several emotionally dark years around middle school. Ever the introspective processor and deep thinker, Lena identified her own mental health troubles and developed mature, innovative coping mechanisms. She credits a series of encouraging posts on Tumblr with prompting her to confront her own negativity and its effects on her psyche.

In response, Lena created lists of what she liked most about herself, and the character traits she was most proud of. When the recurring depressive narratives came to mind, Lena had a sword of truth to wield in self-defense. It was rather more of a crudely-sharpened machete, as it took years of arduously hacking away to clear her mind and open a path to healthier awareness and self-perception.

african american girl holding up hoodie over her face
For privacy, image does not depict the individual whose story is shared in this piece. Photo by Talen de St. Croix on Unsplash

Fighting her way out of this murky forest of self-doubt, Lena began to believe in herself more and more through key experiences in high school – one of which was joining the Global Leaders Program. Lena describes GLP as the place where she finally internalized the truth that her voice indeed matters. The program equipped her with increased confidence to express and defend her own perspective, and the practical skills and awareness to do this in a way that is both uncowed by opposition but also empathetic and open to new insights or ideas. Lena remembers how she felt when tasked repeatedly during her first days in GLP to share her own perspective and input on various problems or topics, and how encouraging it was to have her voice listened to, affirmed, and respected by peers and staff alike. Over and over throughout her tenure in the program, Lena (and her peers) all had ample opportunities to present their work and share ideas in small group settings and also at larger-scale presentations. Practicing these skills in a supportive environment allowed Lena to experience success in areas she’d previously feared, and impressed her with her own capacity for growth, as well as the importance of sharing her own ideas and having them valued.

Lena still wouldn’t say that she necessarily loves giving presentations or speaking publicly to an audience, but she does feel more comfortable being and expressing herself – and she can do all this now without needing to vomit backstage beforehand. With her freshman year of college complete, Lena has already seen the ability to speak persuasively and self-confidently open up greater opportunities on her college campus and for part-time work back in Chicago.

With every experience of success and growth, Lena reflects intentionally on how she can share similar opportunities with others, especially youth from backgrounds and communities like her own. Looking back at the trail she’s blazed, Lena sees how mental health treatment – and even simple external affirmation of her own internal battles – would have eased the burdens she carried throughout early adolescence. Family and school professionals alike missed signs and her furtive attempts to voice her struggles, and she’s determined to become part of a solution for future generations of youth. She speaks openly of the stigmatization of mental healthcare in her community and other communities of color, and she’s actively campaigning to confront and counter these misconceptions.

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