Behind the Scenes at a Sober High School (& Why You May Be Teaching Addiction All Wrong)

Every Monday morning, the students at William J. Ostiguy High School gather for a group meeting, where they share their achievements and check in with each other before facing the week ahead.

Photograph by Jessica Scranton

Edit Note: We asked Kim Tranell, Deputy Editor of Choices, shares a behind-the-scenes look at a very important story from our October issue.

“Do we have any recovery anniversaries today?”

I’m sitting in the back of the classroom during Monday morning announcements, and this question is sandwiched between what could be any high school’s typical concerns on a late spring day—a reminder about SAT sign-ups, a quick note about warm-weather dress codes. It’s just one of the many times I’ll be made aware of the tensions between the lives these students are trying to embrace and the ones they’re desperately attempting to leave behind.

I’m at a publicly funded recovery high school—one of about 30 nationwide. And for all of the progress many of these brave teens have made in their fight against addiction, they will always be fighting, just a little bit—not only against this brutal disease, but also against the stigma attached to it.

When brainstorming topics for the coming year, the Choices editors are always looking for new ways to give our teachers the substance abuse stories they need to complement their curriculum. The central question we asked this time around: How can we put a face on addiction? On average, some 135,000 Americans die from alcohol or drugs each day, and another 23 million are in recovery. Still, those individuals often hide behind a shroud of secrecy, and their families don’t speak of their struggles. It’s no wonder that when most teens learn about addiction, they think: “That? That can’t happen to me.”

To blow the lid off that dangerous misconception, I traveled to William J. Ostiguy High School in Boston, where all 30 students are living proof that—while certain social, economic, and geographic factors do make people more vulnerable to drug abuse—being a teen with a developing brain is as strong of a risk factor as any. So please take a moment to read the resulting feature story, “We Used to Be Drug Addicts.” There’s a growing movement to rebrand addiction, and with this piece, we’re eager to join in. If we’re going to put an end to our country’s drug crisis, which is ravaging families and shattering lives, the stigma must end here.

Our wish is that this piece will, first and foremost, provide students with engaging stories that illuminate the dangers of drugs firsthand. But we also think it can be used to foster compassion for those who chose the wrong path, as well as hope: If your students or someone they love are struggling with addiction, the courageous teens we profiled here are proof that help is available—and recovery is possible. Their resiliency is astounding.

As John McCarthy, Ostiguy High’s recovery counselor, put it: “It’s easy to just write somebody off as a loser. It’s a lot harder to take the time to see them as a human being and understand how they got where they are.”

I would like to publicly thank John, along with everyone at Ostiguy High, for welcoming me that day—including the school’s incredibly dedicated principal, Roger Oser; the teachers who allowed me to sit in on their classes; and the students who opened their hearts and their minds. Each and every one of them expressed a sincere desire to stop others from making their mistakes.

So please share this story—we beg you—and make their message heard loud and clear.  

**On October 4 in Washington D.C., more than 600 organizations from around the world will gather in a show of solidarity for Americans struggling with addiction. For more information on The Day the Silence Ends, please visit FacingAdiction.org.**