Cancer Shaming Reaches New High
This week, an exciting opportunity is emerging for our community’s young people. Students at Savannah Middle School will be participating in an ambitious project over winter break. As part of their Health class’ unit on the dangers of substance abuse, the school’s 6th grade student body will be witnessing the passing of a life prematurely ended by tobacco products. Five candidates, who will be removed from life support or otherwise expected to die over the course of the last two weeks of December, have been selected from three hospitals in the region, and it is believed that they will meet the unique schedule and transportation availability of every student.
A child’s presence at one of the preapproved deaths can be verified with a simple sign-in, but if they know of another terminally ill smoker who might be more convenient or hold more sentimental value, they can use them by taking a picture with the smoker, either before or after death, and bringing a copy of the death certificate into class. Verification by an adult is not possible, as the visits are intended to be unsupervised, a move that has drawn some controversy.
“We believe that these students are fully capable of processing death on their own terms,” said Tod Newell, principal of Savannah Middle. “People underestimate kids. They don’t need an adult looking over their shoulder and pointing out every sign of the body shutting down, and we’re not going to patronize them. This exercise is about letting them draw their own conclusions.” In response to accusations that the assignment could be considered somewhat voyeuristic, Newell said, “You have to understand that these patients aren’t like those inspirational cancer patients you see in movies and occasionally donate money to. They have bad cancers, like lung or throat cancer, not good cancers, like breast or brain cancer. Their conditions were fully preventable, and if any of them were still fully cognizant, I’m sure they would recognize that using their deaths to help keep children from going down their paths is more than a worthwhile goal. We know that not all of our selected patients have a known history with tobacco products, but it is no longer possible to verify that with them.”
The Health teacher, Anne Stevenson, is very optimistic about the program. “I really can’t think of a better way to hammer home the messages of our drug unit,” she said. She expects it to be a significant improvement on last year’s program, when a homeless drug addict was brought into class in an attempt to convey a similar message. Unfortunately, this was considered a failure, as she was, quote, “too cool.” “As it turns out, Miss Skies was a little too charismatic and full of simple but far-reaching wisdom. I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted her forming a mentor bond with several students and helping them repair their messed-up home lives as part of a grand personal journey for all ages. Luckily, there shouldn’t be any risk of that happening this year.”
Of course, the assignment does not end with the visitation. When the students return in January, they are expected to bring a two-page paper in with them. Those from religious families are to speak with their parents about how their patient’s torment continues even after they passed on, and what form that hideous afterlife will take according to the tenets of their faith. Nonreligious students or students who would otherwise prefer not to discuss their spiritualities, can instead study their patient’s past and write their report on how and why all their friends and families inevitably abandoned them over the years. “The important part,” Newell said, “is that they understand that not only will smoking destroy them, it will also destroy anything they could have left behind, however they choose to interpret that.”
Principal Newell stresses that the intention behind this assignment is not to instruct students on how to live their lives. “This is a school,” he said, “and this is an educational endeavor. Our goal is not to tell students what they can and can’t do; our goal is to give them all the facts. And the facts of the matter are that if they smoke, they will die, it will be their fault, and nobody will miss them after they’re gone.”
Peter Tkaczyk is a third year writing major who volunteers his time teaching youth how to ostracize and abandon their peers for smoking. You can reach them at [email protected].