Winter is the time of year that becomes very difficult for individuals to stay positive. Cold weather, lack of sunlight, and the everyday struggle of work or school that push our stress levels to the extreme. For me, the winter of 2017 was one of the worst. For the 2016-2017 school year, I was a recent education graduate working as a math specialist in my rival high school. Living and growing up in the community gave me a special insight into where these kids were coming from and the pressures that were bestowed upon them from all sides. Being 24, some students connected with me a little better than with veteran teachers because not too long ago I was sitting in a classroom and dealing with the issues that are running their minds ragged. This was a golden opportunity for me to help as many students that I could, if I knew about their struggle. Working in a high school, I see students dragging themselves through the halls dreading their next interaction with their peers. Bullying, social acceptance, and poor self-image beat on these kids until they can’t take anymore. Stack on top of that the academic pressure to pass, go to college and “succeed” by whatever definition is presented to them from parents, teachers, and friends. High school is probably one of the toughest times in a person’s life, merely for the fact that they are always trying to prove themselves to someone. For whatever reason, students are afraid to reach out and talk about it and this is where my story begins.
Walking to my second period class, I was greeted by my colleague, lost and distraught. She had just learned that a graduate of 15’ had taken his own life. This student was one of hers and the memories shared of him were nothing but good times and happiness. “He was always smiling”. Little did anyone know, he was suffering, until was released by a clench of his fist. I had no connection to this kid, but I couldn’t help but feel sick thinking about who he was and the pain that he was in.
Three weeks later, I walk into school to hear the murmur of chaos stirring in the halls. First period was eerily quiet and filled with the subtle tears of hurting teenagers. No one really knew what happened but we all knew a student was barely clinging to life, surrounded by helpless family and friends. Self-inflicted wounds put a student in the hospital and eventually in the ground. Worst part about it, this was student number two for my colleague who had this kid in her class just last year. I went home for a week feeling helpless and sick, trying to find an answer through my chaotic mind and confused tears.
A month goes by of a confused school that can’t seem to find the answers. Conversations with our classes seemed to blow by. Administration held open sessions to hear ideas about how to help. Constant reminders about our counseling services seemed so routine that the student body became numb because they couldn’t see the benefit. Blame was being thrown around a community that was searching for answers. Then came the worst news.
Student number three for my colleague broke her to pieces. She came to me teary eyed and frantic, asking me for an answer like I knew what had happened. Then she told me his name and my body went numb. I could see his face, his handwriting and now the empty desk where he sat in silence day after day. I had just helped him the day before, and now he was gone. The wake was hard. His empty desk was haunting. My thoughts in silence were the worst. I couldn’t find an answer and am still searching. In the following weeks, another student had attempted twice; once in a school bathroom and once at railroad tracks. At a neighboring high school, a student succeeded at a local parking garage. Suicide and pain were everywhere in the communities I call home and my heart was broken. But from all of this pain, I found a calling.
I am currently a 24 year old high school math teacher and volleyball coach, dedicated to the student voice. Teenagers need to know that they are allowed to be sad. They are allowed to be angry and upset. They are also allowed to say it. I have committed myself to earning students trust so that they have someone to talk to. Cry, scream, and swear at me about what they are going through so they know they aren’t alone. I got a tattoo shortly after all of this, that represents a simple phrase, “Do good”. My passion is to help anyone and everyone, starting with my students. So when I shake your hand and you see the symbol on my wrist, you will know I am here to help. There are communities willing to help so take the chance.
**I wrote the following letter to student number three**
Dear Quiet One,
You walked into class as an outsider. Coming halfway through the year has a natural way of making you stand out. I didn’t know what to think of you in the first few days. Over time I knew you as this; quiet, focused, angry or sad or uncomfortable. You were a great student in our class, which is why I never asked. Now, I sit here writing this as you lay in the dark silence of nothingness. No emotion, no feeling, no movement, no you. Something was telling you to leave us and I never even knew. I didn’t see it. I didn’t hear it. I didn’t feel it. To me, that you was normal. Now I know that there was another side of you, and I will never get to see it. After all of this is said, I owe you this; I’m sorry that you were hurt. I’m sorry that I didn’t know. I’m sorry that I only watched you from across the room. I’m sorry that I walked passed you in the hall. I’m sorry that I never stopped for you, to question you or listen. I’m sorry that after months, I never knew a thing about you. I’m sorry that I will never get the opportunity to tell you that I care.
I want you to know that I will never forget you. I will act in your name so others get heard. Nothing is worth the price of life, but I hope that you have no more pain and can rest at peace. It hurts that you’re gone. It hurts to see you’re empty desk, that will never be filled again. I am in pain because I let you down and failed the one job I thought I was good at. But I will learn from your life. I will cherish our time, however short it was. You are no longer in pain and I can learn to live with that. I only wish I had the chance to take the pain away. Rest at ease with no more struggle or pain. You will be missed.
“In the end my friend, we will all be together again.”