Late on Monday night, R got a phone call from his principal. Strange enough — and then I could tell very quickly that something was dreadfully wrong. He hung up and told me that an eighth grader at his school had died that evening and that they’d be having an emergency staff meeting the next morning.
I felt a sort of dull horror at the news. An eighth grader? For some reason, a car accident or the like never occurred to me; I figured, given the age, it had to be either a sudden allergic reaction or suicide.
Tuesday morning, R texted me with the details they were sharing. The boy had killed himself. He’d been a popular kid… in the GT (gifted and talented) program.
“Oh God,” I thought. “That’s one of [my friend]’s kids.”
As his GT teacher, my friend had been this child’s teacher for the past three years. When you teach people every day for a year, you really get to know them and feel like they are “yours.” Teach them for three years straight… that child becomes a big part of your life.
R came home yesterday talking about what a sad, hard day at work it had been. Even though neither he nor his students (all sixth graders) knew the boy who had died, the atmosphere of shock and grieving had permeated the building. I could well imagine — especially the shock factor. You know, as a high school teacher you kind of permanently steel yourself against the day when you lose a kid. (My number hasn’t come up yet; I know one day it will, and I try to put that out of mind because it makes me sick to think of anything happening to any of my kids.) But you really never think about 13-year-olds dying.
And then, as I knew she probably would, my friend wrote about her day. I read what she wrote this morning and the full awfulness of the situation hit me square in the heart. I shouldn’t have read it before I had to drive to work; I kept switching back and forth between loud oldies and NPR to try to suppress the tears that wanted to rise.
I am inadequate to comment on what she wrote; I hope you’ll take a few moments to read it and honor the pain and strength that fill that school this week. But even though it doesn’t directly impact my life, I can’t help but react.
It is so awful. This boy was smart, loved, athletic, popular, and supported by friends, teachers, and family. What demons haunted his brain that made him think that this was the only course of action for him? At the age of thirteen, what made a seemingly well-adjusted child decide that his life was over? You expect to hear about bullying, about long-lasting signs of depression, about family trouble or isolation at school. At least from my limited vantage point, that doesn’t appear to be this child’s story.
I hope I won’t offend anyone by saying that suicide always makes me angry. I am angry at the wanton psychological damage it leaves in its wake. I’m angry when I picture the heartbroken teachers and faculty who are left wondering what more they could have done, what they missed, how this could have happened to one of their children. I’m angry when I think of his parents and how their lives have been destroyed — because no matter how many years go by, no matter how much you heal, THAT life is destroyed forever. I’m angry when R tells me about his (unrelated) student, whose older brother committed suicide recently; he is an absolute wreck, emotionally and academically. I don’t know whether to hope that this boy had siblings or not; I hope he did, for his parents’ sake, but I hope he didn’t, because I can’t imagine the scars. Right before this boy died, he sent a text message to a female friend telling her what he was doing; she’s the one who called 911. I’m angry for her, angry for the burden he threw on her that she will never be able to shake off.
I am glad that the school is facing the tragedy head-on and allowing students and staff the opportunity to grieve and heal together. When I was in high school, we had a rash of student suicides and I still heatedly remember how the administration refused to speak of it, tried to hush it up and keep everyone in the dark. I understand now that it was a misguided attempt to protect privacy and prevent copycats, but it wasn’t healthy.
I am glad that the people at the school have a strong community. I am glad that the boy’s classmates have each other and an extraordinary teacher like my friend. I am glad that my friend has them. They need each other.
And I am heartbroken. He was not my student, but he is any of my students. He was not my child, but he is any of my children.
I am heartbroken for and with his teachers. A shadow of their agony follows me today. Why any of us choose a career with so much potential for heartbreak baffles me sometimes, until I remember that sadness is the necessary companion of joy.
I wish there was some way to make every hurting kid believe that it really does get better — that there is a future waiting that you can write for yourself, that you can break free of the things that make you miserable as a teenager and chase after the things that fulfill you and give you happiness. I wish they could see that it will prove worthwhile to take arms against their seas of trouble. I wish they could all understand how precious they are, how much other peoples’ lives are tied up in theirs, how much pain their loss would cause. (And yes, I know. That’s not a helpful argument for someone who is at the end of his rope. But I still wish it. I wish it made a difference.)
I am so, so sorry for my friend. I wish there were anything anyone could do. I don’t even know what to say.
What a terrible, terrible thing. I grieve.
If you’re reading this, and interact with young people, you should know the following things:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 1-800-273-8255.
The National Hopeline is 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433).
People can get online emotional support at Crisis Chat.
The Trevor Project has great resources for LGBTQ teens who are struggling.
Reach Out has resources for teens, by teens, to help them get through these rough years.
The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide has resources for parents and educators as well as teens.
Our state is currently the only state without a nationally certified suicide hotline.
(Another education blog, Teenagers are Ridiculous, wrote about this tragedy as well.)