I have recently left Andover in search of a higher education at a private college in Waterville, Maine. Eighteen years of my life were spent in Andover. I attended 12 years of public schools and I feel as if I was prepared for the world outside of Andover as I left to embark on my college journey,
I also left a plague that had been spreading slowly right in front of my eyes.
Neglect is the silent destroyer of not only families, but also communities. It all starts with the attention of the parents or guardians of a child. Children are molded by their surroundings and upbringing, but what if no one is there to bring them up? What if the community they rely on for support has been taught to avoid them because of the evil that has crept into their lives?
Heroin use is not as obvious on a person as some may think. The kids who end up getting involved with the drug are often forgotten by most until the news comes around they overdosed on heroin and left the world that wouldn’t accept them. The news comes out that another innocent, unique, valuable and unforgettable soul has pushed the limits and met their fate -- ending the battle with their addiction. Facebook posts go out, text messages to the family and friends. The town gathers for the wake, the funeral and even holds a candlelight vigil; but after all the memorials, is anything actually done? Does anyone really learn from the tragedy? Does anyone start to think and ask themselves why two young people have died in the past six months from overdose? (In all, six people of different ages have died from drug overdoses in Andover since Jan. 1.)
Starting in middle school, the students of Andover are taught to avoid people who do drugs, because they are “dangerous” and “cannot be trusted.” Much like the AIDS scare in the 1980s, myself and many other kids from Andover thought that being around someone who used drugs meant that we would start to use them, too, and catch the same disease they had caught: addiction. This stigma stays with us as we go through high school and when another one of our peers starts to make harmful decisions, we instinctively back away and alienate them. Because of what we are taught, addicts who eventually overdose and die are basically lost the second they start using; the support system is not built into society to save them from their own destruction.
We must not judge those who we cannot truly understand. The tragedies of overdose in 2015 alone illuminate a problem in Andover that has still not been addressed. The neglect of a family should not be enough to kill a soul. The true neglect lies in how the society of Andover deals with drugs and failure. With so much stress, a child who cannot easily find success will fail in the eyes of Andover. “Failures” are cast out and not given the privilege to participate with the rest of the “successful” kids. When these “failures” lose the support of the community, they look for the support of drugs; and they will find it, temporarily.
There needs to be a change; everyone from Andover needs to feel the love and support that I felt and that has gotten me to where I am today. It all starts with the school system, since children are the future and are also the driving force behind revolutions. When kids are taught to strive for success and that drugs (and their users) are bad and should be avoided, we are laying the foundation to judge our peers and reject them in their times of need.
I challenge you, Andover, to make practical change. I challenge you to alter the course of how drugs are perceived within your community. Build classes around the education of addiction and dangerous drugs. Teach children that an addicted soul is not yet lost. People use drugs for a reason; step out of your comfort zone to try to find that reason. If it means just saving one life then it must be worth it. The battle against drug addiction is not lost every time we lose another friend. This is a wake-up call for everyone in Andover who is complacent with the death of the bright and smiling classmates that we grew up with since kindergarten. The truth is that drug addiction can happen to anyone.
Change the institution. Be the voice to disagree with the tragedy. Spark an uprising against the discriminatory views of drugs and extinguish the stigma. Andover kids are dying and all of you have the power to change it.
Ben Hartford is a 2014 graduate of Andover High School who is majoring in biology and pre-health studies at Colby College in Maine, where he will be entering his sophomore year in the fall. He lives on Cross Street.