Speaking from the heart, Oaklander gives inspiring speech about overcoming adversity

January 28, 2019 — by Krithi Sankar and Jeffrey Xu

Junior Connor Oaklander speaks during the Speak Up for Change all-school assembly on Jan. 22.

As then sophomore Connor Oaklander sprinted out of the goalie box to tackle the opposing striker in a September 2017 game, his legs buckled as he fell to the ground. A jolt of pain seared through his body, dizziness taking over and a faint noise ringing in his ears.

Oaklander, now a junior, had been in the midst a soccer tournament in Modesto. However, after an unanticipated play from the other team, Oaklander’s poorly oriented slide-tackle left him lying on the ground, blacked-out.

“When I charged in, I didn't sweep the ball with my feet while keeping my head away, which is what I should have done,” Oaklander said. “I believe I got kicked, and that concussion made me unable to go to school for three weeks.”

Following the match, doctors diagnosed the injury as a severe concussion, which they said would heavily impair his cognitive and athletic ability both in and out of soccer.

Since then, Oaklander said that “nothing has been the same.”

 

A shattered dream

One concussion led to the next for Oaklander, as he endured two additional concussions during another soccer game in November of the same year as well as during a basketball game shortly afterwards.  

With what began to feel like a series of never ending concussions, the dream he once had of being the idolized star player on the Stanford University soccer team was “shattered.” “My dream was that I would go straight to Stanford, a D1 school, for college soccer, and everything was going to work out perfectly,” Oaklander said. “However, as time passed by, things started getting difficult.”

So, one week into the season in his sophomore year, despite having been elected JV captain, Oaklander had to quit the team.

Additionally, all of these concussions and his resulting weakened cognitive and physical performance led Oaklander down a dark path, to the point where he struggled day in and day out to find the strength to get himself out of bed.

Toward the beginning of junior year, almost a half year since his latest concussion, Oaklander said that his vision became blurry, and he found himself needing to sleep for 11 or 12 hours a day. The symptoms, which appeared within a week of his concussion, dramatically affected his academic life, causing him to drop AP U.S. History in the middle of November.

His concussion also manifested in physical issues such as light-sensitivity and sound-sensitivity. He began to feel like he was “getting old.”

Although he was able to do most of his daily tasks, just the thought of having decreased abilities contributed to struggle.

“As a result of just thinking about that, it became so easy to attack myself,” Oaklander said. “I was constantly pouring out all of these faults like ‘Oh, you’re not capable, and you’re not smart.’”

He also felt that he no longer belonged anywhere, especially since most of the time, friend groups are stratified based on similar interests or hobbies. Now no longer one of the “soccer kids,” he didn’t feel like he had a group.

Oftentimes, Oaklander said that he would reminisce about the past.

“Look at me,” he would say to himself. “I used to be this great guy, but now I’m just this piece of garbage.”

He said his depression reached an all-time low when he started having serious depressive episodes in September. He said he also had some relationship issues, including a breakup and family difficulties going on as well.

Oaklander felt like his imagined journey to Stanford failed due to the setbacks he faced with his mental health.

“It was like I had a plan and everything, but like I just wanted to die,” Oaklander said.

However, his saving grace was his judgment, and Oaklander began coming to terms with himself and in September he started going to CASSY, the school’s mental health and counseling service. Despite his perceived flaws, Oaklander said that he began to see himself in a more positive light and as somebody with a purpose.

With this mentality, Oaklander began to appreciate the value of speaking up about his problems and being open about them.

 

Sharing his story

After several months of coping with the situation with the help of family, friends and regular therapy sessions, Oaklander started to turn to social media as an outlet for expressing his emotions, periodically posting updates on Facebook and receiving support from his peers.

“Social media kicked the whole thing off,” Oaklander said. “I'm thankful for the huge support base, and I feel like the luckiest man alive.”

After using social media to provide others a glimpse into his life and his struggles, Oaklander then decided to also speak up through events at school.

During a Breaking Down the Walls assembly in October, Oaklander stood up to tell his story, and he said he felt a rush of relief and gratitude as he was finally able to expel the emotions he had previously been sharing only on social media.

Once Oaklander got the opportunity to tell his story in person, he felt his load lessen.

About a month later, Oaklander decided that he would apply to be a speaker for Speak Up for Change week.

“My therapist’s mentality was, ‘Go right at what is bothering you,’ and [what was bothering me] was talking to other people about my problems,” Oaklander said. “So I signed up and forced myself to go out there and be honest and tell the world my story.”

One of Oaklander’s main messages that he wished to deliver to the student body during his Jan. 22 speech is that nobody is perfect, and everyone has problems.

“I saw myself as someone can get this achievement and that achievement and display this image as someone who is invincible. But part of it is we want to be the best versions of ourselves,” Oaklander said. “The reason why I want to go up there to get this attitude out there of accepting problems that happen.”

Being able to acknowledge his issues has helped him in overcoming them, and he encourages others to do the same.

Additionally, Oaklander wants to help cure the stigma against antidepressants.

“I have to rely on this pill that I take every morning to keep myself stabilized,” he said. “But how does that make me less worthy of a person? How does that make me not able to succeed?”

Oaklander said that once everyone starts to share their problems and become comfortable doing so, it will be easier for everyone to talk about and take a huge burden off their shoulders.

“Things aren’t going to be perfect because we’re human,” Oaklander said. “We have struggles and problems, and holding it in isn’t going to make it any better. So why hide it?”

 

Best speech of his life

On the morning of Jan. 22 Oaklander “didn’t think he could do it.”

Running through his speech at 5 a.m., Oaklander thought he had two choices: 1) stick with a script that he “hated” or 2) speak off the cuff and say whatever was on his mind. Moments before his speech, he chose the latter approach.

In retrospect, Oaklander said that he does not regret a single thing about his speech and was glad he took the risk to go off script.

“When I went up there, I bit my teeth and was like, ‘I'm gonna just talk,’” Oaklander said. “So I just said whatever was on my mind and took the risk of failing, and I'm so stoked that I did it.”

Understandably, it was not easy for him. He was very nervous about speaking in front of the school; in fact, the night before his speech, he had a nightmare about going onstage without a script and blanking out.

In the end, the speech could not have gone better.

“It felt unreal, man, just being up there,” Oaklander said. “I couldn't believe I did it after I came down.”

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Principal Paul Robinson delivers a final message during the Speak Up for Change assembly held on Jan. 22.

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