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esthercepeda

Esther Cepeda

If you know a teen — a relative, a family friend or even just the kid behind the counter at your local pizza joint — give them a gift today: Look them straight in the eye and assure them that everything is going to be OK.

It's the time of year when tensions are especially high for older children. Recent high school graduates might soon be saying goodbye to lifelong friends as they head off to college and oftentimes-daunting independence. Meanwhile, the pressures on high school juniors and seniors are ratcheting up as seemingly everyone asks the innocent but heart-stinging question: What are you doing after you graduate?

And this is the very least of their stresses.

It doesn't take into account the complicating day-to-day factors of life as an adolescent. Many worry about being able to afford a post-high school education or living arrangements. Others struggle with issues related to sexual identity that can emerge during these years. Some, of course, deal with chronic medical or physical conditions. And there's the mounting stress for many of simply being nonwhite in an America that is increasingly racially hostile.

Can you begin to imagine being a teen and starting the new school year feeling like you've got a target on your back because you have a dark complexion and maybe an accent from another country?

"Personally, I didn't want to go to school," 17-year-old Roman Pastrana told Education Week. Pastrana explained that when his senior year at El Paso's Eastlake High School began two weeks ago — before the mass shooting there that apparently targeted Latinos and killed at least 22 people — he felt anxious even though his family is documented and living in the country legally.

"Regardless of that fact, we're just scared. We're afraid that something can go down … Anywhere I go, I feel threatened," Pastrana continued. "A minor who hasn't even voted yet shouldn't have to be afraid of being in school or afraid of being Hispanic."

Education Week reported that similar concerns are shared by officials in school systems that serve large populations of U.S.-born Latino students and legal immigrant and undocumented youth.

"It's the first catastrophic, mass-killing event that targeted individuals — adults, children — just on the basis of being Hispanic, being Latino," said Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of the Miami-Dade district, where 71% of students are Hispanic. Carvalho noted the appalling likelihood that some of the victims at the El Paso Walmart were doing their back-to-school shopping.

It might have been the first mass murder to target Latinos in this country, but it may not be the last.

Distinct overtones of white supremacy are a feature, not a bug, of our current president's rhetoric. The attitude that Donald Trump exudes toward people from other countries is simple: They are inferior.

Immigrants are frequent targets of derision in his comments, tweets and applause lines at rallies. He's also, of course, insulted black people and women, and even mocked a disabled reporter. Which group will he target and demonize next?

Teens' lives are already racked with uncertainty and pressures — to get good grades, find their first jobs, face pressure to drink or do drugs, and generally fit in and promote an Instagram- or SnapChat-worthy self-image. This all takes a heavy toll. A February Pew Research Center survey that 70% of all teens 13 to 17 believe that anxiety and depression are major problems among their peers. Another 26% said they are minor problems.

And a lot of teens work very hard not to show it — to varying success. Therefore, they need understanding, comforting and support even at the most boring, ordinary moments.

The other day I went up the street to pick up some meatballs for dinner. They cost $6.40, and I gave the polite young man behind the counter a $10 bill. As he started counting out my change, he apologized. "I'm sorry I'm going so slow," he said. "This is my first time doing this."

I assured him that he wasn't going slow at all and that he was doing a great job and would only get better as time went on.

The teens around you are probably bearing a heavy load. Pay attention to them and, whenever possible, give them some kindness and encouragement.

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Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.

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