Three Faces

One of my favorite traditions at Sparta Middle School is that every morning during homeroom we play the National Anthem, followed immediately by the Pledge of Allegiance.  Some schools play the Star-Spangled Banner on special dates or at the beginning of sporting events, but at SMS we are committed to devoting 1 minute and 30 seconds of our day to the song of our nation.  While most students stand in silence as the music plays, some of our 8th grade homerooms have been known to sing along to the words penned by Francis Scott Key nearly two centuries ago.  In fact, there is an unofficial competition between some homerooms over which one does the best rendition.

My hope is that during these still moments, students will take the opportunity to reflect and appreciate the men or women, both past and present, famous or unknown, that have through their sacrifice or their story influenced them. For me it is three people; three faces.

The first is Pat Tillman.  Corporal Tillman was a college football star at Arizona State University before getting drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 1998.  Following the 2001 season, Pat turned down millions of dollars to keep playing in the NFL and decided to join the U.S. Army with his brother, Kevin.  On April 22, 2004 Pat Tillman, while on a mission in Afghanistan, was accidentally killed by a member of his own platoon.  For me, he represents all the men and women who choose to serve and sacrifice.

Just recently a former student of mine joined the United States Marine Corps.  I have known him since he was thirteen years old and will never forget the pride that he felt when he completed the Marine Corps training program, Officer Candidate School.  His face is the second one that I picture when I stand for the National Anthem.  I wonder where he might be, hope that he is safe, and that wherever he is that he will be home soon.

Finally, there is Ryan.  I think of Ryan during the National Anthem not for reasons of patriotism, but as a reminder of my own commitment to the students in our school.  I first came across the name Ryan Halligan while watching an episode of Frontline.  The episode was about how the growth of the internet has influenced- revolutionized- how students learn, communicate and interact with one another.  To list what has specifically changed would be a superfluous exercise; with each passing day we are increasingly committed (not necessarily to our liking or by choice) to our devices and profiles.  However, we also are recognizing the dangers of "growing up online", to borrow the title of the episode.   Undoubtedly, the internet has altered how we communicate.  Protected by the perceived safety of distance and sometimes anonymity, we are more likely to type and post things about other people that we would not normally say to their face.

By the time John Halligan, father of Ryan, fully understood what his son was doing and what others were doing to him online and at school it was too late.  I never met Ryan but I know that he could be a student at any of the schools where I have worked...just a different name and face.  Same hurt, same pain, just somebody in need of a smile in the hallway and for people to be kind and respectful.

This week Mr. Halligan will be presenting to our parents and many of our students his son's story. The goal of his presentation it to raise awareness about teen depression, suicide prevention and the dangers of bullying (on the internet and in school).  The third face: Ryan Halligan.  You won't forget it either.

For more on Mr. Halligan's presentation:

Most recent article on his presentation:

NJ Youth Helpline