I used to think that children were like butterflies. They’d stay inside a cocoon you would shelter and watch until they would finally break free. You’d catch a glimpse of them floating by as young adults and then they would vanish into their own little world. Mysterious. Hard to fathom.
But as a teacher I came to understand children were not always sweet little things.
I found I had to wrap myself and my heart up tight with an Ace bandage in order to maintain control over my students. Had to feign cheerfulness or sternness as required. There wasn’t room for too much getting close. And yet somehow the children seemed to creep in anyway.
There was one I felt an affinity with, an odd thirteen year old that started with me when she was only eleven. I couldn’t say why, but she had become a sort of rock in my life. A reliable part every Tuesday evening, and she would make me laugh with her silly stories and wild opinions.
This week, she came into the room in tears.
“Whoa, whoa, what happened?” I asked, thinking it was just another fight with her mother.
She told me.
A local boy had just committed suicide over the weekend. He was happy. He was popular. “Everyone liked him,” my student said, scuffing her neon sneakers on the floor of the studio. “He was in high school but we were all still friends with him. A good friend of mine, she’s kinda overweight and gets bullied a lot. She says she’s feeling suicidal too.”
“What?” my hands slammed on the piano keys, startling her. It seemed out of the blue.
“We go to talk to the counselor and stuff. But she’s out this week. My friend said that the boy – Chris was his name – he was the only one that ever told her she was beautiful everyday. She doesn’t know what she’ll do without him.”
I started trembling.
“Okay, we can’t let this go,” I said in a stronger voice than I felt. “Sweetie, you need to take her to get help. Do you talk to her?”
“Will you talk to her tonight?”
She nodded again.
“You tell her from me: I used to be suicidal too. When I was her age, actually. But I got help, and I am much better for it now. Often it’s a mental imbalance – a hormonal imbalance. Did you know that?”
She shook her head, her eyes filling with tears again.
“Okay, well, sometimes a doctor will put you on herbal medication or harder medication and it straightens you out. I’m not saying that will happen to your friend but it might. She needs to go to therapy so they can talk about changing the way she thinks. Changing her thoughts from negative ones to positive ones. That’s what the therapy does. But you can’t let this go. This is important – her telling you that was her cry for help.”
I didn’t want to see another incident, I thought. Not another suicide so close to three accidental deaths the week before at the same school. I would not let this happen.
My student piped up. “At lunch today this random girl we didn’t even know said something about her dad and about maybe her not eating so much.”
“Geez… did you punch her?”
She laughed and I held a hand out. “I don’t advocate violence, but seriously, what did you do?”
“Me and my other friends went over to her table and said, ‘Hey, why the heck would you say that to her? Maybe you shouldn’t eat so much!” That was more like my strong student.
“Yeah, those bullies? That girl? You tell your friend they are just doing it for power. They just look for a weak link in the system. If it wasn’t her, it would be someone else.”
“Yeah, I told her even if she just like, yells in their faces or something, but doesn’t cry and take them seriously, that was fine.”
“Good.” I wrote down a number on paper and folded it up very small. I held it out to my student.
“You tell her,” I said as she clutched that piece of paper like a lifeline, “you tell your friend that her place in the world is so important that a complete stranger is willing to talk to her if she needs the help. You tell her.”
“I will,” my student said.
In those two words, she looked every bit the fragile thirteen year old she was.
I gave her a hug and sent her home, feeling that maybe I went too far, but hoping her friend would get help.
I saw myself as a thirteen year old, lonely and begging for help. Maybe that’s what had made me react so emotionally. I saw myself in that girl and wanted to stop her from having to go through all the bad things that I experienced in life.
I felt terrible. I cried and tossed and turned all night.
I had never been thrown into such a serious situation before. I had never dealt with it. What would another teacher do? What would anyone do? In this day and age, something as simple as offering your help could be interpreted in negative and damaging ways.
What a shame this world had come to that.
I looked to my family for advice and my cousin told me I had gone too far, that I should have just told her to get help and that was all. I overstepped my bounds, she said.
I didn’t know if I had. I fretted about that. I fretted about the girl. Was she all right? Was my student handling things okay?
The next day, mid lessons as I sat distracted with a piano student, her mother stopped by the studio. I went out to talk to her in a free moment.
“Did she talk to you?” I asked her. She said her daughter hadn’t. She was there for another reason. I sat her down and explained everything that happened.
“Did I go to far?” I asked. “Is it okay I said all the things I did?”
“You know her really well,” her mother said. “She’s tough.”
“Because I know going into detail about those things… I just thought to myself: another adult would just say: go get your friend help, and wouldn’t explain why. I wanted her to know why.”
“And you absolutely did the right thing. Thank you. I really appreciate what you did for my daughter,” she told me. “Her friend is going to get help, I promise you.”
“I just did what I felt was right.”
“And you were.”
That night I sat writing on my computer and my mother came in, knocking on the door. “You know,” she said, “you might have saved a little girl’s life.”
“Maybe I did,” I said. “Even if she isn’t suicidal, it’s a cry for help for something. I just did what I had to.”
I wondered, thinking to past heroes in history, if this is how they felt. Satisfied they did a good job, but not really feeling they did anything special. I hadn’t. I hadn’t. I just didn’t want to see a little girl hurt.
Such gossamer threads hold our lives together. Fragile, like a butterfly’s wing. We don’t see how they connect or help until one of them breaks and we all fall.
If we watch one another for the signs, maybe we can prevent that.
I cried again and my mother hugged me like I was just a child myself.
“You’re a good person,” my mother whispered. “That’s why you care so much.”
She was right.
Maybe caring was all it took to make the difference.
The Ace bandage around my heart had started to unravel, but I found that I didn’t mind.
So this is entirely nonfiction. This just happened.
This was written for Write at the Merge 3, which gave the prompt of the two words: “gossamer” and “Affinity”. And also, for the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Eric Storch gave me this prompt: The Ace bandage had become unraveled, but I didn’t mind.
I gave Andrea this prompt: The eyes are not the windows of the soul, they are the doors. Beware what may enter them. (A quote from “Doctor Who” but please don’t feel you need to write about him. Just a little inspiration!)
But in all seriousness:
If you notice anyone you love acting strangely, suddenly giving away old things, leaving a job, breaking up with or divorcing a significant other without much warning, keep an eye on them. Talk to them. Find out why they are doing these things on a whim.
The boy who committed suicide this past week was a popular child, and no one suspected anything was wrong. However, he did end a long relationship the week before he died, and he took the time to write letters to all the people he loved, (which definitely took planning,) which were found upon his death.
I believe that education about mental illness and depression are key to preventing teen death. I didn’t learn specifics about these things until high school, but I had already felt depressed and suicidal at the age of 13. It was only because a friend told on me to my parents that I am alive today.
People will tell you that the world is a much more progressive place than it used to be, that mental illness is no longer a stigma.
This is a lie.
I have faced bullying, misunderstandings, and I am fairly certain (but unfortunately have no proof) that the real reason my last job ended suddenly was because my boss found out I was seeing a therapist. While I only have a very mild case of depression that is now under control thanks to therapy, changing the way I think and a daily regimen of St. John’s Wort, there are hundreds of others afraid to get the treatment they need because they are scared what people will think of them.
We need to start educating our children younger, and not wait for a young life to snuff itself out before having that serious talk. By then, it’s too late. The damage is done.
I fully advocate teaching children about these things from a young age. Make them see that mental illness is not a sign of a bad person. Good people can have major problems. And some come out the other side – mostly – fine. I advocate a community where students, teachers, friends and families all communicate with one another. If I had not reached out to my student’s mother as well as my student, perhaps nothing would have changed. But I felt open enough to approach her anyway and do the right thing.
Say what you will. I am not a mental health professional. I would never say I could counsel a child. But I have been through the experience myself and I know what that little girl now faces.
I wasn’t sure at first if I should have said all I did to my student.
Now? I know I made the right choice.