When I was in high school, our student body experienced a string of suicides. Within a matter of months, several students attempted or completed suicide. This was before the age of the internet or cell phones, so word-of-mouth was the only avenue for students to learn about and mourn these deaths. Consequently, rumors sparked and took off. The administration was totally silent. At the end of the school day following each death, there would be a quick, fill-in-the-blank announcement that a student had died and that counseling was available. No information, not even the basics to quell the most absurd stories. I know now that schools are in tricky positions with situations like this, and it’s possible that they didn’t even have the authority to deviate from their one-sentence script. But at the time, it not only seemed counterproductive but cruel, heartless.
So I wrote an editorial for the school newspaper. In it, I criticized the school’s policy of silence and made the argument that by allowing the rumor mill to run wild, they were actually causing the suicides to be romanticized and possibly worsening the problem. It was carefully written, not offensive, not especially inflammatory — I wanted to inspire change, but I’ve never been very good at throwing caution to the wind. I submitted it to the editor of the school paper and heard that it was slated to run…
…and then the administration put on their censor hats, vetoed it, and had it pulled from the paper.
I guess I had a few different options at that point, but this is the one I went with: I submitted it to the state newspaper. Like, the real newspaper. And they didn’t reject it. The next week, my editorial ran in the paper complete with my headshot and byline, and was distributed throughout the entire state.
I don’t recollect there being any real effect at school, beyond a few people congratulating me on getting published. So I went on with the business of being a high school student, graduated, and went to Boise State.
And at Boise State, a communications professor named Peter Wollheim tracked me down after reading my editorial. He was working with the Idaho legislature to try to get funding for a suicide prevention hotline and asked me to come down to the Capitol to listen to the arguments and possibly testify. I didn’t end up testifying, but a local public radio reporter interviewed me afterward. Then Peter asked me if I’d like to work for the college newspaper. It seemed like a great opportunity, so I applied and got hired.
My experience with the college newspaper was mixed. I recognize now that I was being lightly hazed by the more veteran reporters and columnists, but I was ultimately given a great deal of freedom to choose how I wanted to contribute to the paper, and I ended up doing some work I was proud of and some that was merely being thrown together to meet the deadline. After about a year I concluded that journalism wasn’t for me and became an academic advisor instead. But in the meantime, I came to know and like Peter and his sad-eyed smile. Even though it wasn’t the right door for me, I appreciate that he had opened big doors for me in the university. And as time went on and our paths went separate ways, I still paid attention to his crusade to curb suicide, especially teen suicides, in our state.
Peter Wollheim was a nice man with a big, worthy mission.
And yesterday I learned that he had died. The beast he’d fought, ostentatiously on others’ behalf, finally turned the tables and devoured him.
I wasn’t close to Peter in the same way that I was close to Dave, Tom, or Mary Ellen, but he definitely falls into the category of “professors who had a big impact on my undergraduate career,” and now he also falls into the category of “people who died too soon.” It sucks. He was doing good work in the world, and now he’s gone.
Peter Wollheim read the newspaper one day, sixteen years ago, and saw that some idealistic kid was angry about the same thing that angered him. He remembered her name, and did who knows what kind of detective work to track her down so that he could give her a platform, give her opportunities. He didn’t know that kid, didn’t have any reason to help her, but he did, because he saw something in her that made him think that she might make a difference in a world that needed differences made.
I didn’t end up using his tools. I may be a writer but I’m no journalist; I may be passionate, but I’m no lobbyist.
Instead I became a teacher. I’d like to believe that teachers, if they can keep their hearts on their sleeves and their eyes and ears open, can make a difference to young people who are struggling with depression… and certainly to those left behind when the worst happens.
I’m grateful to Peter for hunting me down and giving me a shot. I’m grateful to him for his years of fighting to make Idaho a better place for those fighting suicide and depression. And I’m very, very sorry that he is gone.