I am a lover of words and language. I believe with my whole heart the power words have to heal and to connect. I have prayed about this, wept about this, and tried to make peace with this. I have brave students, who have written powerfully, who have used their words to help heal and connect through their true pain. I have been a coward.
September is National Suicide Prevention Month. I’m still afraid. I don’t want to be a person who preaches but doesn’t practice. So, I am writing. I am writing as real and as true as I can. There will be grammatical errors and there will be things I leave out that will be important, but I know I need to write and I need to tell my story because I want the world to be a place where no one else is afraid.
I am a teacher. I am just a regular teacher who loves her kids. I have the privilege of teaching Language and Composition. I am unafraid, in my classroom, to approach difficult subjects because I know I am doing this to help kids think. I know I am doing this to make kids grapple with important ideas and learn how to take a strong position and defend their position. I love my job.
I also do everything I can to love my kids. I try to listen-not simply to hear, but to listen- to what they say. I fail a lot. Often times I am afraid of what they tell me. I am overwhelmed. Last year, I had so many students, from so many places and backgrounds who had so much pain. I didn’t know what to do. I prayed a lot. I cried a lot. My husband would sit with me, as I wept at the dinner table for all the pain and unfairness my students were facing. Yet, because I love my job, and I love my kids, every day, I tried to put on my bravest face, to open my heart, and to listen without judging.
One of the students (who I truly loved) was hurting. I watched him slipping away. He had always been such a contemplative observer. In the final weeks of senior year, something scary was happening. I received an e-mail from a student I didn’t know, begging me to help this young man. The student I did not know was terrified. I knew all the trust I had tried to build with this student would be ruined if I did what I had to do. I had to talk to someone.
I’ll never forget going to talk to our school counselors. They were (and are) wonderful. They knew his friends and I were scared. They listened without judging, although they were probably terrified, just like I was. They didn’t promise to take my burden, but they made me know I had done the right thing. I kept telling myself, “Not telling isn’t helping. What could be worse than his not getting any help?” I cried. All day, I cried.
I didn’t know what the process was, but I knew the next day he was so angry with me. I knew. In that moment, I knew. I loved him more than my fear. I loved him enough that his hating me was worth his life. I told him that. I told him to his face, “I love you enough to let you hate me because I want you to be safe. I love you.” I cried.
Then, the next day, our school had an electrical fire. A freak, crazy, one-in-a-million electrical fire. No one was hurt, but school was out. I didn’t get to see him after that conversation. The next morning, all the teachers met in a church across the street to try to have a “digital” day of learning. It was the expectation that all teachers contact at least one student via technology during the day. I laughed with my teacher friends because my phone was blowing up, and I knew I had this in the bag. As my principal was talking, I wasn’t supposed to be checking my e-mail, but I opened my computer just to check. And there it was. An e-mail. A good-bye. From my student. Who was going to take his life. Right then. And in that moment, I yelled out, in this church, surrounded by a community of people who could help me. I yelled, “Help me.” On any other day, in any other circumstance, I would never have checked this e-mail. But in this church, in this crazy, never before situation, I checked, and I yelled, and I was answered.
Immediately, I was surrounded. Teachers who are my family encircled me. The remarkable counseling staff helped me find his contact information (the systems were out because of the electrical fire, so this was so challenging) as the minutes ticked by. They held me up. My brave principal and amazing leader got the police on the radio, and EMT’s and police were dispatched. I was beside myself. I could not see. I remember knowing, in my heart, he was dead. At one point, I knew I was not going to be able stand up any more. Somehow, I found myself in a back room, sitting in a child’s chair sobbing. My principal came in. “They have him. He’s hurt. But, he’s going to be okay.” That’s all. I fell on the floor. I begged someone to help me find my husband. I don’t know what happened. This precious team of people somehow got my husband there. He put me in his car. He took me home, and my whole family was there. They held me together.
I’m not over it. I am not a hero. I didn’t do anything extra. But, I was crippled as I watched him struggle over the weeks, with the burden of telling. I struggled because I loved him. I didn’t want to believe this could happen. I didn’t want to risk my friendship with him. In the end, his life was more important than my fear. I know that I was supposed to learn that. Being a church, I know that God was there, reminding me, I am not in charge. I am not brave. I am not different. We have such a stigma in our culture of getting help. My student needed help. I needed help. We all need help. We need to face our fears and recognize that when we truly love people, we fail. And that is the hardest part. The real test, the real love, is in how we face the failure.
It is National Suicide Prevention month; it is about creating a world where we can all feel free to get help. Where we can remove the stigma of fear of talking about mental health. We need to stop expecting everyone to know what to do, and we need to admit that sometimes we are lost. We are afraid. No one needs to be a hero. We just have to believe and know there are people who can help. We can make a difference-together.