"Think of the groundhogs": for life advice from a primary school student, press 2

If, for whatever reason, you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious about personal, professional, or geopolitical matters, a new hotline offe...


If, for whatever reason, you’re feeling overwhelmed or anxious about personal, professional, or geopolitical matters, a new hotline offers advice on how to handle those big feelings.

“If you’re nervous, get your wallet and spend it on ice cream and shoes,” a distinctly youthful voice advises enthusiastically.

“If you’re frustrated, you can always go to your room, hit your pillow or cry on it. And just go shout outside,” another child said in a neutral tone.

“If you’re angry or frustrated, you can do whatever you want to do best,” suggests a third, “or you can do jumping jacks on the trampoline.”

At various times since it became operational late last month, around 9,000 people per hour were calling PepToc, a hotline dispensing the spirit and wisdom of students from West side schoola small elementary school (enrolments: 147) in rural Healdsburg, California, about 70 miles north of San Francisco.

Credit…Bryan Meltz for The New York Times

“I think we’re a grieving world right now,” said Jessica Martin, a West Side art teacher who created the hotline with Asherah Weiss, a fellow artist and educator.

“The pandemic, the war in Ukraine – it’s all still very raw, and we never had time to emotionally recover,” Ms Martin continued. “But hearing the pure joy of children is extremely heartwarming.”

After dialing 707-873-7862, callers are presented with a series of options: Those feeling “crazy, frustrated, or nervous” are asked to press 1. For “words of encouragement and advice from life” or “kindergarten pep talk”, dial 2 or 3. Press 4 “to hear the children laugh with delight” or 5 for “encouragement in Spanish”.

Matisse, a fifth-grade student who advises on the hotline that “if you’re feeling high and off balance, think of the groundhogs,” said in an interview that his favorite part of the project was being there for people in difficulty.

“Some people just need help,” he said Thursday. “And if people are feeling sad, they can just call and hear a funny thing.”

His favorite option is to hear the children laugh. “When I’m feeling frustrated, it makes me feel good to hear people laugh,” he said.

The project, which also featured a poster, began when Ms. Martin asked Ms. Weiss to help her create an artwork that could teach students about empathy while focusing on students’ resilient joy for two years of pandemic and the many wildfire evacuations the region has endured.

Over the course of a single day, Ms. Martin and Ms. Weiss asked each of their classes, from kindergarten through sixth grade, how they were staying positive. They then asked students to imagine someone in need of a little joy: “How about you think would help someone else?”

The responses from the classes were immediate.

Credit…Jessica Martin

They just poured into the paper and into these recordings because it was light,” Ms. Weiss said in an interview. “They’ve been through so much in the past two years. They understand that. They understand that. They know that the opposite would be useful. And giving them a chance to add positivity to the world is a no-brainer for them, I think.

Some students worked with Ms. Weiss to put together tear-off posters and flyers with positive messages so people could capture love or hope in the city.

Other students have volunteered for the hotline, which has been running since late last month. Ms. Martin lined them up in single file outside the classroom and recorded their thoughts with her iPhone. She grouped their responses by theme to create the menu options.

Since the hotline started, she’s had a steady stream of callers listening to the roughly 25 recordings, Ms Martin said. But she thought he might get a thousand calls in a month – not thousands an hour.

Ms Martin said most people spend around a minute and 40 seconds on the hotline – enough time to browse two menu options – but some stay on the line for six to seven minutes. There are many repeat calls, she added.

“It’s so precious and sweet to hear the voice of an elementary school student telling you to go scream into a pillow,” Ms. Weiss said. “In this voice, it really hits home, and I think it’s heartwarming to hear the next generation calling us to connect and find ways to heal and resolve our issues.”

Ms Martin and Ms Weiss say they were inspired by the artist Susan O’Malleyincluding his book “Advice From My 80-Year-Old Self: Real Words of Wisdom From People Ages 7 to 88” and his performance art series in which she and a friend gave pep talks in the parks.

“It’s truly a celebration of his spirit and other artists who have chosen to bring positivity and joy to the world through their art,” Ms. Martin said. “And also to introduce children to the idea that art can be a conversation that can bring about positive change in the world.”

Since the response has been so positive, Ms Martin hopes the school can secure funding to keep the helpline running indefinitely.

“But mainly, I hope the children will take this experience with them forever,” Ms Martin said.

“And, you know, recognize that it’s really quite easy to make a difference in the world and bring joy to others,” she added. “All it takes is a word of encouragement.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: "Think of the groundhogs": for life advice from a primary school student, press 2
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