Wellness: The Lie We Tell on Latin's Tours

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Eleanor Pontikes  When giving a tour at Latin, there are certain selling points that you try to convey to the prospective families: the cafeteria serves warm cookies all day, teachers meet frequently with students outside class if they ever need help or have questions, everything in the science center has a purpose (whether it be the dry erase walls or the meter-long floor tiles), the eight day rotating schedule provides flexibility, the art on the fourth floor is all student-made, and Latin fosters a health and wellness mentality for its students and teachers. “What does that mean?” some parents ask about health and wellness. I give them the “Latin seeks to lower stress” spiel before continuing down the fourth floor hallway to show off the art rooms. But as I continue the tour, I wonder what health and wellness actually means at Latin and question the honesty of my spiel. We have an eight day schedule with built-in sleep-ins for the days when you start off with a free period, which is an extra 90 minutes to meet with a teacher, sleep in, or do homework. There’s the “homework free” weekends that are supposed to alleviate stress on fun weekends like homecoming and President’s Day weekend, but they often result in a build-up of quizzes and assignments for the day after you go back to school. For the past two years, teachers have had “shadow days” where they follow a student around to all their classes to get a feel for what a student typically has to do on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, Latin’s efforts to alleviate stress and promote health and wellness aren’t enough. Due to the nature of high school, where you have to fit sports, school, homework, sleep, and meals into a 24 hour day, there isn’t a lot of time for anything else. Even with measures put in place like “homework free” weekends, there is a constant pressure from parents, college counselors, teachers, and that voice in your head telling you that you should be doing something instead of relaxing. “You could be studying for the ACT.” “Why don’t you start studying ahead for precalc, so you won’t have to worry about going to your basketball game on Wednesday?” “Pause the Netflix and text a friend to hang out!” In the end, it’s all about prioritizing and managing time, but this leaves a lot of people feeling unlike themselves. It’s no wonder that the American Physiological Organization reports that 31% of high school students feel overwhelmed, 30% feel depressed or sad, and 36% report feeling fatigued. Some say that stress in high school prepares you for the “real world,” but it doesn’t have to be this way— or at least, not to this extent. By already trying to embody health and wellness, Latin is leaps and bounds ahead most schools. But what else can Latin do to become more well-rounded in its approach, without compromising its values of excellence and purpose?  

  • Make students aware that feelings of stress and depression do not make you any less of a person and that it’s okay to talk about them. The stigma around mental illness has become an issue with recent events, such as school shootings, in which the media portrays mental illness as a disgrace. In reality, mental illness affects millions of people and should be met with guidance, support, and an open dialogue. Although Latin has counselors for anyone seeking help, there should also be approachable ways to address mental illness. Whether it be through speakers or presentations, creating dialogue is the first step to reducing the stigma.
  • Promote daily exercise and movement as part of well being. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, daily exercise can dramatically improve your health from controlling weight to reducing risk for cancers. Although Latin mandates PE requirements in its curriculum, the typical school day is stagnant for its students. Besides gym or dance, every 50 minute block is spent sitting. Sure, you might leave your seat to go get water and walk up tons of stairs to get to class, but there’s still hours where you do nothing except sit on a hard chair behind a desk. No matter how you look at it, that’s a problem. I’ve been fortunate enough to have teachers encourage movement throughout the class period. A couple days ago in my Latin class, for example, we played musical chairs to find partners to help us translate words. Any movement helps break up the day into more enjoyable chunks and has been proven to improve motor skills according to the CDC. Can’t argue with that!
  • Get outside! It’s so hard to get outside during Chicago’s seemingly endless winter, but any time out of confined spaces can instantly help to relieve stress. Researchers at the University of Essex in England are discovering that time spent outdoors can have added benefits to exercise and boost mental health. Now that it gets dark before school lets out and we’re in school during all the light hours, it’s easy to feel gloomy. Luckily, Latin is located right next to one of the only green spaces near downtown, Lincoln Park. Teachers can help by having discussions outside when the weather is nicer or by going on mini field trips to break up the normal routine of the school day and get some steps in!
  • Be mindful. Brain-imaging studies at Harvard University have shown that practicing mindfulness has an impact on improving attention and sensory processing.  Through visualization and breathing exercises, mindfulness is explored. Latin’s new class for seniors focuses on mindfulness and how to apply it regularly. At the end of the day, mindfulness controls all aspects of health and wellness. Be mindful of what you’re eating, what you’re drinking, and what you’re putting in your body. Be mindful of your time and how you wish to prioritize it. Be mindful of your family, because your stress shouldn’t translate to being catty towards them. Be mindful of perspective and the world around you.
I feel assured knowing that Latin does care about me and those around me and has already acknowledged the lack of health and wellness in its community, but I wish more would be done. Most of this list is already implemented at Latin, but they aren’t regulated or officially part of the curriculum. Balancing workload, extracurriculars, and health and wellness while maintaining the academic rigor expected of one of Chicago’s top schools is like a juggler trying to handle four bowling pins: it can be done, but sometimes one pin must fall so the others can remain aloft. Health and wellness should not be the aspect of school that we sacrifice or don’t prioritize. Rather, we must be thoughtful in how health and wellness is implemented and all be invested in seeing it carried out. ]]>