Cherish the Living

A student in one of my classes killed himself last night.  The news was delivered in a staff meeting held before school started today. 


He was clearly in a bad place in life, but not visibly any more so than many of his peers.  Just in these first four weeks, he missed more classes than he attended, was late to a couple of others, and always appeared very tired.  He was uninvolved in his work in class, missing most of it, but he did do some of it, and he did it pretty well (if he were only being graded on the work he’d turned in, he’d have a B).  He asked me questions a few times, and I could tell that he was bright and mature; he just seemed unmotivated. 


His father actually emailed me a couple of weeks ago, asking how his son was doing.  I responded that the young man had been missing a lot of class.  After that, he came a little more often.  Today I thought of replying to that address again to offer my condolences to the father, but I haven’t done it.  I’m not sure it would be appropriate.  He has too much grief on his mind to care about noticing the sympathy of strangers. 


I have no idea why this boy committed suicide.  I assumed the reason for the disconnect between his apparent potential and his substandard performance was drugs.  His appearance was that of a typical stoner, and it would explain the sleepiness.  I could be wrong, and I hope I was.  Surely, I can see now, his problems must have gone deeper than that.  I’ll never know what the story was there, but even though I didn’t really know this kid at all—I only ever saw him four or five times—I was shocked to hear about his death.  Suicide is always shocking; the death of young people always tragic.


While taking attendance today, which we do on our computers, I clicked the button that automatically brings up a student’s entire transcript for our review. He had taken several honors classes as a freshman and gotten As and Bs. As a sophomore, however, his grades had quickly changed into Fs. He had no honors classes in his schedule for this year. This story tells itself: something sad must have happened to him about a year ago. It could have been something as simple as adolescent angst and confusion, unchecked, mutating into something really scary. We can only mourn what might have been.


I know that it’s foolish to think that I might have said or done something in class in just four weeks that could have stopped this, but still, you know?  But still…


I remember when musician Kurt Cobain killed himself when I was in high school, I felt overwhelmed for what must have driven him to it.  In the 15 years since then, however, I’ve often thought of making a list of all the great things he’s missed out on.  Kurt Cobain never saw The Matrix, never heard any more of Sonic Youth’s new albums, never got to catch up with friends online or see videos on YouTube.  He didn’t get to ring in the new millennium, he didn’t get to try an Angus burger at McDonald’s, and he didn’t get to see his baby daughter grow up to become a beautiful young woman.


The student who died last night might have lived another 70 or 80 years.  Who knows what things in life might have brought him joy at some later point, things as mundane as the weather or things so amazing that we haven’t even imagined them yet.


If I could go back a week or two and say anything to him, I’d tell him that if things ever got so bleak that death really seemed preferable to life, to just do whatever it takes to make life the better option.  Throw people’s expectations and rules out the window.  Living for yourself is a lot better than not living at all.


As I thought about this poor boy today, I was reminded of a different boy. This other boy is in my wildest, rowdiest class, one that I’ve been desperate to tame since day one. Though also clearly very bright, his sleepiness and occasionally rude remarks had gotten on my nerves. Two weeks ago, I took him out into the hallway and let him have it, just yelled at him. Then I called his mother and told her we needed to talk.


His mother told me about the serious issues that had been influencing him, things that made his class behavior very understandable. I was already feeling bad about how I’d treated him—I knew that I’d overreacted, and I hate losing my cool—and now I felt worse. She and I ended with an understanding that we would help this young man do his best.


He hasn’t fallen asleep since then; hasn’t had a problem of any kind in class, as a matter of fact. But it took today’s tragedy to make me realize that here is another young man, with some similarities to the one who died, and I was completely blowing my chance to make a real difference. Despite his improvements of the last two weeks, I hadn’t gotten out of my routine to acknowledge him at all.


After school today, I called his mother again. She was very nervous to hear from me. But when I told her how great her son had been working for two weeks, how happy I was with him, and how proud she should be of him, she almost cried. She poured out some more of their story and it was a wonderful discussion. After hanging up, I felt like I had used my position to plant a seed of hope and joy that may well blossom into a far greater gift to everybody.


I feel so sorry for the boy who died and for his family. I hope they all find the peace that they’ve been looking for, the solace that they need so much. And I’m sorry that it’s taken such a dramatic shock to remind me of something that I don’t often enough think about.


I don’t usually like to write sentimentally about school here, but this thought applies to every part of life.


The lesson of death is always, always this: cherish the living.


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