SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
At a time when many 16- and 17-year-olds mostly worry about algebra homework and homecoming, students of South Webster High School in southern Ohio have other worries.
BRETT ROBERTS: Every one of these kids knows somebody or lives with somebody who has suffered through addiction.
SIMON: Brett Roberts is the principal and says he looks into the opioid crisis every day as his students walk the hallways.
ROBERTS: We have so many students here now in foster care, being raised by a single parent or grandparent or an aunt or an uncle, living with a friend. They could tell you a story.
SIMON: Close to 50 juniors at South Webster are taking a special course created because of the way addiction has seeped into their community.
JUDY ELLSESSER: You know, the teacher's the one at the front of the classroom who's responsible for the lessons, for the teaching.
SIMON: Judy Ellsesser, an English teacher, is one of the instructors who developed the course.
ELLSESSER: But for us to learn, for the teachers to learn of what those students are experiencing on a daily basis - it just - you're just amazed that they get up and come to school every day, you know, let alone try to write a thousand-word essay or something like that.
CYNDY HYKES: They imbibe a little bit of that pop culture view of Appalachia as being backward hillbillies and all the negative stereotypes that go with it.
SIMON: Cyndy Hykes, a history teacher, also teaches the class.
HYKES: And I think one of our missions that I think of as a history teacher all the time is, how can I reverse that on them? How can I make them feel like their experiences have value, that their community is important, that we're not poor and rural and disposable?
SIMON: The teachers have created a course that begins by reading Sam Quinones's highly acclaimed 2015 book "Dreamland." It traces the trail of drugs from small, poor towns in rural Mexico into the small struggling towns of southern Ohio, where the students live. The book and course help the students understand that drugs are a national crisis, not just a family catastrophe. We're going to bring you just a couple of the students we met, Macy (ph) and Lexi (ph). We won't mention their last names to protect their privacy. Macy is small and slight with a shy smile and dark hair she wears in a braid. She's lived with her grandmother since she was a year and a half old because both of her parents are addicts and not around.
MACY: They don't look at the most important things in life like family or friends. Like, they just look for a way to get high and to escape. They go after something that doesn't care about them. Like, they care about the drug, but it doesn't care about them.
SIMON: You still in touch with your parents?
MACY: Well, I don't really know where my dad is. I think he's, like, somewhere around here. But I don't talk to him. And my mom is in Missouri, but I don't - like, I talk to her every now and then on the phone. But I don't see her.
SIMON: I'm so sorry. How's your grandma doing?
MACY: She's hanging in there. I think it's affected her. That's what sad. I feel like she has been robbed from so much stuff. Like, her kids were supposed to take care of us.
MACY: Like, she's not supposed to be 50-some years old, taking care of teenagers.
SIMON: Does it help to be able to come into this classroom and talk about that stuff?
MACY: Yeah. I used to sort of hide it from my friends 'cause I was embarrassed myself. But as I noticed it's not just me that's being affected by it, like, I started speaking out and let people know they're not alone.
SIMON: Yeah. That means you're not alone, too, you know?
SIMON: Lexi, I'm going to turn to you. What's your life like?
Lexi is taller, with long, fawn-colored hair. Her parents were also addicts. Lexi often escaped to her grandmother, too, but kept returning. She didn't want to leave her younger sister alone with their parents. Her father died from a drug overdose when Lexi was in the eighth grade. Then...
LEXI: In two months, my mom overdosed. And I was stupid, and I left my sister with my mom. And my sister found my mom in the bathroom floor. And...
SIMON: How old was your sister?
LEXI: She just turned 9.
SIMON: I'm sorry. This is probably not helping you (laughter). But I'm crying. Your mother now?
LEXI: Yeah. She's actually doing good. Well, she went to rehab and everything. But she only went for a day. We actually didn't know that she left rehab until December. And we ran into her at a gas station.
SIMON: You ran into your own mother at a gas station?
LEXI: Yeah. We ran into her at a gas station.
SIMON: I - I mean, I'm having a hard time separating the reporter from the father that's me. The father in me wants to tell you that this isn't your fault. You should know that - none of this.
SIMON: And there's no reason for this to be a blight on your life. You can be happy and do great things. I hope you know that.
LEXI: I do.
SIMON: You already have.
SIMON: You've already done great things for your family.
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UNIDENTIFIED PARENT: My daughter, Alexia, is a junior at South Webster High School. She had to do an essay on "Dreamland..."
SIMON: Lexi's mother, the woman she ran into like a stranger at a gas station, read an essay Lexi wrote for her course about their lives. It is blunt, painful and made her mother so proud. She read it on Facebook - even the most wrenching part.
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UNIDENTIFIED PARENT: (Reading) My sister came running out of the house. Stop, stop, stop. There's something wrong with mommy, she screamed. I jumped out of the car and ran upstairs. And I saw my mom laying in the floor, not moving, breathing and her eyes rolled back in her head. When the paramedics came to my house, it was the same ones that was there when my dad died. And he said, come on. You have to stay here for the kids. Don't let them lose their mommy, too.
SIMON: The last line of her daughter's essay are words that will hurt a mother. But a mother also understands.
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UNIDENTIFIED PARENT: I don't want to end up just like my mom and dad did.
SIMON: Then Lexi's mother says on her own...
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UNIDENTIFIED PARENT: I am so proud of her - so proud. And no matter what struggle I went through with my addiction, not putting her or her sister first, I am very, very happy that I am clean and sober today and that I am in their life.
SIMON: The community is part of the course. Counselors and nurses, a judge, a former coroner and the fire chief have all come in to talk to the students about what they've seen of the opioid crisis, too. But much of what the students take from the class is what they learn from each other.
You guys have a lot in common, Macy and Lexi, don't you?
LEXI: Yeah. I know what it's like to feel alone. And I don't like that feeling.
MACY: I think it helps whenever you have someone that has been in a situation that's similar to yours because a lot of people that are on the other side of it - they think that they know the feeling. But until you actually experience it, you never really understand.
SIMON: The course at South Webster High School, a little improbably called Dreamland, puts the family crisis these students know so well into a larger frame where they might see their own resilience.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE DURUTTI COLUMN'S "SKETCH FOR SUMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.