By Amy Klein
One boy, typically surly and irritable, sprawled in a papasan chair, reading.
At a round school table, another usually unsettled young man with flashing, intelligent eyes, busily worked through late assignments. The assignment he’d ripped up and refused to finish earlier in the day. Today’s math worksheet, efficiently completed and stowed away in his folder. The vocabulary activity from reading class, done ahead of time, with quality, gladly, inexplicably.
“Let me see your work,” my standard educator’s line, seeking proof and accountability.
His sprite 6th grade frame bopped to my desk and presented a notebook page of amazingly illustrated multi-syllable words.
“This is beautiful.” I don’t remember connecting with his dark eyes. I thought I felt
satisfaction. He wasn’t one to gush over. “You certainly deserve some free time.”
These boys are icebergs, a bit of visible surface, a mysterious terrain underneath. They end up on my caseload, their behavior so atypical from their peers or so problematic in their families or in the community, that special education is deemed necessary. Sometimes they have diagnoses, but in general, they have emotional/behavioral disorders. They are bullies, outcasts, difficult, obstinate, misunderstood, unlovable and in spite of all that, lovable.
I suppose it’s my job is to fix them, but mostly I try to understand them, assure them.
You’re okay. You’re going to be okay.
The bell rang and we were done for the day. A teacher like me plans in baby steps, always
on the look out for progress in the smallest of increments. Today’s good work was hope.
Tomorrow, we’d keep on.
The phone call came not even an hour later reporting one self-inflicted gun-shot, an apparent suicide completed, an incomprehensible fatal final answer. The echo is obtuse, numbing. Still.
That day, he had stuffed his backpack full of books and coats leftover from warm fall
afternoons. Had he really finished all he had to do? Designed a peaceful last hour? Just eleven years. Was this last day all he could endure, all we’d have of him? This day? The last day that anyone would have of him?
This is messed up, the police chief mourned. It’s not right. What could have gone so incredibly wrong?
For us, an answer is inconceivable. As the pastor acknowledged at the funeral–there are no words.
Yet, the rebuttals. Whispers among neighbors. Suggestions, strident, self-assured. Broadcast digital postings and generalized advice in newsprint blurbs. We question: what can we do to fix suicide?
In order to make some sense of the unknowable, the unimaginable, people seek to understand.
To point a finger in a seemingly obvious direction.
To push back on the towering wall of statistics and make them change.
To snap a finger and declare the problem of depressed, traumatized youngsters, of unrest and hurt, the problem of mental illness conquered because someone spoke of it.
If we’d pay more attention to the signs. Weren’t there obvious signs?
If we’d all been properly educated. Where were all the counselors and psychologists?
If we’d not tolerate bullies. Most likely, he felt threatened.
If we’d conduct careful screenings. We’d have documented the signs.
If we’d pay attention to the signs. We could have countered the problem.
If we’d allowed him the comfort of a privilege, maybe even when he hadn’t deserved it.
If we would have talked more and taught more and cared more.
If we’d been kinder, more understanding.
If we would have handled the situation more wisely.
If we wouldn’t have left him alone.
If we would have some answers.
If is a helpless word.
I am the teacher and I don’t know the answers. None that I know for certain.
But I’ve felt grief before and on this shaky platform, all I know is that I’ll wake up each day. I’ll remember. I’ll watch. I’ll encourage and I’ll insist we keep on hopefully, stubbornly. For the other boy, reading in the chair.
Amy Klein is the mother of four kids, all teens or tweens. She is a special education teacher at Osceola Middle School where she works with many more teens and tweens.
This piece emerged from an unexpected tragedy. As one teacher I know expressed, “The suicidal death of a student affects you. It does.” Accepting the reality, telling his fellow classmates, wondering futilely why, feeling anger at outsider’s criticism, deep sadness at the loss for his parents and friends, for all of us at school… left me in a half-baked grief. Nothing in my personal life had changed, but my head felt so disorderly, like my thoughts had been tossed in the air and left to fall any which way. I have been affected by this experience and writing about it has helped me figure out how.