Finding a speaker for an all-school assembly who can engage over 800 students on the topic of staying drug-free might seem a daunting task. “This talk again?” our teenagers might protest. “Haven’t we heard enough about the dangers of alcohol and drugs? We get it!” Even so, it is a conversation we need to have again and again with our students and in many different ways.

To this end, last Tuesday we were fortunate to welcome Ty Sells, Director of Training from Youth to Youth International, thanks to the generous funding and planning of WaylandCares. In two separate assemblies that captured our entire student body, Ty tackled the old topic of drinking and drugs using a new and effective approach: the theme of individualism and having the freedom and confidence to be your true self. Youth to Youth International began decades ago as a community-based anti-drug coalition in Ohio. Now it is a national organization that focuses on prevention programming and leadership training for youth who are committed to healthy lifestyles and to supporting their peers in making good decisions. Its mission is “to engage young people through meaningful discussions, activities, and experiences to develop and implement their own ideas to create positive change.” Notably, some of our own SADD leaders have attended the annual Youth to Youth summer conference and have come back bursting with new ideas and resolve.

Ty Sells did not barrage our students with facts and figures about drug use and its pitfalls; in fact, he did not mention more than one biological or statistical fact about illegal substances. Instead, with his humorous, straight style, he began his presentation by engaging our students in a discussion about stereotypes. “Stereotypes exist because we have the inability to accept differences,” he said, using some comical examples to illustrate that we make leaps of judgement all the time. It might be human nature to judge without the full story, but to effectively understand others–and be understood in turn–we need to actively unlearn our assumptions.

Case in point: we have found that many students assume that more of their peers are using drugs and alcohol than actually are. The 2014 Metrowest Adolescent Health Survey found that lifetime alcohol use among our students is below the state and national averages (US: 66%, MA: 63%, Wayland: 51%) and there has been a steady decline between 2006 (62%) and 2014 (51%). While there is clearly much more work to do around alcohol education and prevention, choosing not to drink is more normal than our students might think. Freed from these assumptions, how many students might make safer choices themselves, or support others in making safer decisions?

In the same vein, Ty Sells also spoke extensively about the idea of social pressures and how hard it can be to accept oneself. “You are never going to be like everyone else, as hard as you try,” he said, and then highlighted stories from his own life when he did, and didn’t, try to fit in with his peers. Ty challenged us to shift the power of social pressure and use peer influence for good. “We should build others up, not tear others down,” he declared. He went on to describe how others’ acceptance leads to self-acceptance, which paves the way to fulfilling and creative lives.

In Advisory the next day, students debriefed Ty Sells’ presentation and remembered (with laughter) many of his stories and messages. What are the lasting impacts of reaching out to someone not like me? How can we unlearn our stereotypes? What choices are right for me, regardless of what others might think? Staff and students alike had many positive reactions to his presentation–a fairly unusual response in the world of anti-drug speakers. On its website, Youth to Youth states that, “Research on adolescent development confirms that when adolescents feel safe and secure, loved and accepted, and have a sense of purpose and meaning in life, they are less likely to engage in unhealthy misguided behaviors.” The facts and figures on substance use are important in the dialogue about healthy decision-making. However, as Ty Sells reminded us, the place to begin building understanding with our youth is upon the foundation of love and acceptance.

Allyson Mizoguchi
Wayland High School