Monday, May 6, 2013

Violence to Oneself

Suicide.  The cliched territory of "troubled teens" and a horror of a topic for any writing teacher.  In the past year alone I have strengthened relationships with students over the topic, destroyed relationships with students over my mandatory reporting responsibilities, witnessed students wrestle with their proverbial and hallucinatory demons in their notebooks, peeked beneath the veil of metaphor at the will of girls to disappear,  and talked with tortured parents about the precarious lives of their children. It is a heartbreaking reality of being a teacher, but especially an English teacher, that I must encounter and directly respond to the pain of so many kids.

However, today was a new experience.  My son ran up to me when I picked my kids up at their after school program.  He said, "Today was a terrible day."  Usually this means he has misbehaved incorrigibly and "lost his day" according to his discipline plan.  He is in an Emotionally Disabled self-contained classroom, and mainstreams out into a gifted classroom.

What he meant today is that a classmate became very upset because the two of them were late to class and lost points on their sheets.  They had been kept after by the before-school program so that they could finish taking attendance.  Both boys were upset (for good reason).  Apparently, the other boy's fit escalated, and he threatened to kill himself and went out of control, snapping a handful of pencils in half and sending leads everywhere, trying to stab himself with a pencil, trying to escape the classroom, yelling, screaming.  Finally he had to be physically restrained.  My son gets to witness physical restraints on other students almost daily, though he has rarely if ever been restrained.  My son's response to me that afternoon was "He will kill himself.  One day, he will.  He's already attempted it and been hospitalized. They need to do something."  This was all said matter-of-factly in my son's "I'm a 55-year-old man in a 10-year-old's body" voice.

Many times this year I have tried to imagine what it must be like to witness this kind of violent outburst on almost a daily basis.  He also hears the students call teachers obscene names and threaten them, as well as witnessing the kids actually hit and kick teachers.  I don't like it.  But there are reasons he ended up in that room, behaviors and emotions he still doesn't seem to be able to control.  For now, the E.D. classroom seems to be the safest place for everyone, and the place where he can learn about the consequences of his choices with very clear guidelines.

At any rate, the last year has taught me this:  That we as humans are inextricably linked. When a child considers or commits suicide, it doesn't just affect that child, or that child's family. Just as my son was frightened and overwhelmed by what he witnessed today in class, I grieve for my students who struggle with the darkness and the seeming meaninglessness of life.  I grieve for them, I love them and I do what I can.  At times, a teacher's ability to impact these feelings in students feels utterly intractable, impossible.  Still, like that small feathery thing that Emily Dickinson writes about, the urge to protect, to support, to befriend are incorrigible. Those impulses ride out the storm. They don't go away. What do we do with them?  We acknowledge them and make the best decisions we can for each young person we teach or parent. Despite anything else, I must remain present, even if it means heartbreak.

1 comment:

  1. "Deep Thoughts" for sure. Do you, like I do, look back to your teenage years and compare/contrast? I'm so grateful for my small town, my friendly teachers, my ever-present family, and my strong friendships with great human beings like yourself. Do kids today feel that secure and loved?


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