What’s Behind the Mask?

Last week as I was leaving the gym, a disembodied voice called out “Mrs. Ljung!” I turned to see a student whom I’d taught decades ago. We’d had a pleasant chat several years ago, so I knew she lived nearby. I leaned over her car window to catch up. After several predictable pleasantries, she announced, “I’ve been sober for 22 years now.”

Taken aback, clueless about her drinking in the past, I congratulated her for such a significant accomplishment. She accepted my praise graciously, but that didn’t feel like enough.

“I don’t think I knew,” I admitted.

“I’m sure you didn’t,” she replied.

“I should have, though. I’m so sorry I let you down…”

This lovely young woman assured me that she’d been very good at masking, that others far closer to her than a some-time English teacher hadn’t known either. I found little comfort in that. I’d become a teacher to make a difference in the lives of my students. I knew my district had provided training in spotting alcohol and substance abuse, and I’d suspected other students. Why not her?

We continued to talk for a while longer before we parted ways. For days, though, I continued to think about her and my lack of awareness, my failure to intervene. Then she messaged me telling me it had been a good encounter and writing:

“I also want you to know how much it meant to me for you to apologize for not knowing I was struggling & using in high school. Although I do not feel that you let me down in any way, nor that you should have known, I appreciate that you care. There were many many adults closer to the situation who should have picked up on the signs. However, you are the only one, outside of my parents, who has ever said anything like that. It really touched my heart, and I appreciate it.”

I appreciate her perspective and accept her gratitude, but I’m still struggling with my failure to pick up on the clues. How can teachers know, especially with students who are always under the influence, whom they don’t know any other way? And what avenues are open for teachers who have suspicions but don’t want to wreak havoc in a student’s life if they’re wrong. I don’t have the answers yet.

A Google search failed to comfort me. Data suggest the problem is widespread. Tarlov and others wrote, “During a 30-day period in 1985, 65 percent of high school seniors drank alcohol, 30 percent used marijuana, 15 percent snorted cocaine” (1986). According to Towers, “Teachers exert a significant influence on students’ attitudes, knowledge, and opinions. They can complement a school’s drug abuse program by incorporating drug abuse prevention strategies into their subject at any grade level (1987).

Newer sources assert new approaches. The John Howard Society of Alberta blog suggests that teachers “can also help develop and nurture the idea of school as a community. This creates a sense of belonging, attachment and protection for students, which counteracts tendencies towards abuse of drugs and other substances.” They recommend these strategies:

  • Set clear classroom boundaries with clear rules and consequences
  • Encourage a constructive use of time
  • Foster an environment that encourages a commitment to learning
  • Encourage reading for pleasure
  • Praise student’s achievements and accomplishments
  • Acknowledge successes and abilities
  • Model a sense of optimism and a positive view of learning
  • Keep the channels of communication open
  • Be a good listener
  • Keep an open mind
  • Ask students for opinions
  • Encourage participation in extra curricular activities[1]

The “We Are Teachers” website urges educators to talk to students early and often, to teach them about “about brain science and development. Discuss ways that teens can get that dopamine release naturally—through exercise, spending time with friends, and doing things they love.” It identifies a set of warning signs:

  1. Decreased motivation
  2. Sudden shifts in mood
  3. Sleepiness in class or appearing tuned out
  4. Physical signs such as bloodshot eyes, unexplained weight loss or gain, deterioration of physical appearance or grooming
  5. Change in friend groups
  6. Paranoia or depression
  7. Uncharacteristic display of money or possessions (or the opposite—students looking to sell belongings, for example)
  8. Chronic absenteeism
  9. Abrupt drop-off in academic performance

The site urges teachers who suspect something to talk with students and/or their counselors, or to describe the behaviors that concern them to the student’s family “without speculation or accusation.”[2]

All good suggestions…  but you have to spot the issue in the first place. I didn’t. I wish I had. If I were still in the classroom, I hope I’d be more aware and more astute, more likely to recognize even those students best at masking. I hope today’s teachers do a better job than I did!


[1] http://www.johnhoward.ab.ca/how-teachers-can-help-prevent-substance-abuse/

[2] https://www.weareteachers.com/7-things-every-teacher-should-know-about-teens-and-drugs-and-alcohol-use/

The young lady’s response to this blog before publication:

“I am honored that you quoted me.

I hope that you are at peace with the fact that there was no way for you to know about my drinking/using in high school. There were layers and layers of things going on with me, and that was my way to medicate.

I hope your blog encourages other teachers. It has to be such a delicate balance for teachers to intervene. I have many thoughts on the suggestions and signs that are listed by the sources you quoted. They may not help all kids, but preventing/helping one is more than none.”

Bladder by the Bell


In the late 1980s my Illinois Writing Project training changed my approach to teaching writing forever. A writing workshop approach with portfolio grading displaced my traditional rote lessons, and I wrote and shared alongside my students.

Midway through the 1989-1990 school year, my frustration over a life led by bells produced the following poem.



Once again my writing revealed truth I had ignored. I hated the rigid structure of school and its command of my life. One semester my lunch period might start at 10:30 am, a plausible enough fit with a 5:30 am breakfast. Another semester, though, might make me sit until after 1 pm, forcing me to sneak a snack in during passing time. And come the end of school in late June, I often forgot to take bathroom breaks until urgency commanded them, so accustomed was I to my dependence on bells.


I see the humor in all this; I even saw it then. But one of the great joys of retirement is liberation from this tyranny. The first few years I refused even to wear a watch. Our system of scheduling learning in the public schools serves the masters of efficiency and uniformity, but it can be “cruel and unusual punishment” for those forced to partake in it.