Don’t Let Me Down [On Opening Up When Things Go Down]

Jose VilsonResources5 Comments

John Pushing Paul Off a Roof

You’re not supposed to know when your student is this close to suicide.

You get up in front of the classroom, get students started on their work, and get into the routine. Whether the routine comes from you or them matters little. The room buzzes for a while as they sit, but when the notebooks come out, the notebook pages ruffle, the pencils scratch, and your shoes tap along the aisles and rows you’ve created in your classroom. As you walk up and down the classroom, you check for understanding. Does the student have their objective and “Do Now” ready? Do they look like they’re thinking about the given solution? Does the solution fit in with what they learned the prior year or yesterday? Are you confident they can actually give their answer if called upon in the middle of class?

You’ll ignore their temperaments for a second because the clouds in the sky have yet to give way to the morning.

You start the class and look around the room for signs of intrigue or bewilderment. You’re picking apart the twitches, blinks, and fidgets. You pick the first student to start the conversation. He responds and gets it wrong. You say nothing. You instead point to the next student. She disagrees because he forgot to move a decimal. You ask the room if they agree with that particular statement. Most of them raise their hand, though a couple never do. You choose one student. She says, “I don’t know.” You make a note of it, and simply state, “Of course you know! You must know something.” They shrug. You wait a little. She offers no response. You move onto another student, but keep it in the back of your mind.

You don’t accept non-participation.

You finish the lesson portion in a solid 14 minutes without interruption. You let the students get to their classwork, reminding them of your grading system, and the procedure for how to address questions. You need to take attendance on your iPad, sifting through 28 names you’ve memorized since the second week of school. You look up at the student who didn’t know how to respond to your prompts earlier. She’s fiddling with her pencil, looking studious, impersonating someone who’s interested. You think back to all the times a student ever confided in you that they’ve contemplated suicide, that their homes kept them from doing well in school, that they prefer to have a quiet classroom because they don’t have quiet homes.

That they’d rather not be here. Wherever here is. Last time you felt like that, you disappeared into a vast menu of U2 and Beatles songs and video games, detached from your reality. Daily, you hoped to muster the strength to say that today mattered even when it might have not. You went into a wave of positivity and set goals, unrealistic to the naked eye but it gave you something to look forward to when others couldn’t. Your stoicism and utter professionalism became a guise for a strength you didn’t acquire.

You pull the student aside and prompted a conversation on what happened today. She reiterates her indifference. You keep scratching the surface, hoping to dig just enough to get what’s happening. You find yourself expecting. You get a response akin to “Can I go now?” You ask one more question. She alludes to suicide. You check to make sure she’s going to the “right people” for that, hoping it helps. As a professional, you can’t let off too much emotion because you’re so centered on academics. Your conscience gets the best of you, your strength within these words:

“Listen, if you ever need to talk, I’m here to listen. Just know that there are people who’ve gone through the same thing you have, who’ve felt what you feel, who know what it’s like. It’s not pretty, but just know you are needed. We need you alive and present. And you know what the best part of living? You’re still here. You’re going to be fine. Be strong. Don’t let us down.”

“Thank you, Mr. Vilson.”

“No, thank you.”

Mr. Vilson, who’s all “Jai guru deva om …”

Comments 5

  1. One of my former students, then a Senior at another local school, killed herself two weeks ago. Though she only passed through my classroom for a few weeks before she and her mother agreed she would return to her previous school (where the mother worked), I remembered her well and was (and remain) deeply shaken. Her funeral was last Friday, and my colleague (who had previously worked in that other district) and I were talking about it. All you can do, she said, is work your hardest to support them and give them a sense of their own wonderful intrinsic worth, and maybe work even harder to help them when something like this happens. You reinforce the fundamental importance of caring and reaching out, even when we have no clue where that strength is coming from. I need that today. Thank you.

  2. Jose,
    Just last week, something similar happened to me with one of my most unique and innovative students. he’s a quirky girl who has a darkness about her behind her smiles. He’s popular because she’s straightforward, but it’s clear how well she’s like doesn’t trump the darkness going on at home. I just happen to overhear a conversation she was having in whispers at a table during passing period. I heard words like “I tried to once” and “deep sadness.” It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to put it together. I thought long and hard about mentioning something given that she hadn’t come to me with it, but rather my ears had intruded on her private dialogue. However, something of that nature, and what I suspected was her call out to someone, I felt, could not be ignored. The “What if” game is just too terrible to think about. I messaged her on our campus Facebook-esque site, My Big Campus, in much the same way you spoke to your student. She never responded. Yesterday, she came up to me and said, “Mrs Wolpert, you remember what you wrote to me the other day?”
    “Yeah,” I said.
    “Well, I just wanted you to know I appreciated it. And I, well, I spoke to my mom about what I’d tried to do and, I don’t know what this means, but I’m seeing someone to talk to next week. It feels weird.”
    I smiled and told her I was proud of her. That talking to someone could give her tools to get through a hard time. I also reminded her that she can also find her own tools: friends, mom, or even a teacher. We’re all tools for them, right?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic, and for your post.


  3. This week, a 10th grader at my son’s school committed suicide. This is the third in five years. The school jumps up and down about its district-wide anti-bullying programs, but none of these students were bullied. My teenager hopes that they switch their focus to depression, how to recognize it, how to get help or how to get help for a friend. My twelve year-old just wants to be held and to know why.

    A long time ago, I used to teach an advisory class. As a final question, I would ask the students, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if you do tell a counselor? Your friend gets mad, right? What’s the worst that can happen if you don’t tell?” Silence. “Let’s not ever let that happen.”

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