Two Words

“YOU MATTER, it said.

Well, I do and I don’t, I thought, engaging in a minor quibble with a leaflet over the meaning and value of existence. We all do, we all matter, and also we don’t. As humans, we are legion. We are singular. We’re here to make our own lives hold meaning, in stories and connections.

We’re here.

I always chose to live — hard, and deeply. I chose to live with my own awkward ambition and hope.”

—an excerpt from Monica Drake’s “Doomed in Nashville”

In my in-box this morning, I receive an offer of materials from Angela Maiers, who argues that two words, YOU MATTER, with the weight of honesty and belief behind them, can remake the world.  Maiers contends that we are wired for significance.  Monica Drake, in her vivid and beautiful article about a book tour says what resonates for me though: We all do, we all matter, and also we don’t.  As humans, we are legion.  We are singular.  We’re here to make our own lives hold meaning in stories and connections.”

Almost a decade ago, the community in which I taught experienced a series of suicides at the high school, future home to my eighth graders.  Several former students had visited me in the wake of these tragedies, different students, different connections, different stories, and now an incomprehensible chapter. What became clear, as the area gained an ignominious national reputation as a “suicide cluster,” is that our community — everyone—became victims.

It was late on a Friday afternoon when my eighth graders and I were doing the “Weekly Wrap-Up” that the familiar, disembodied voice came over the PA speaker in my classroom, announcing the cancellation of the sending district dance to have been held that night.  Some groans, some “What?” some indignant observations, but some asked why.  Outside spring weather blossomed.

When I called the front office for more information, the secretary told me that yet another teen had taken his life.  There had been a respite between this most recent death and the ones that preceded it.  We all were beginning to believe “it” was over.  “Can I tell the kids?” I asked.  They would know, of course, as soon as they congregated in the hallway.  Small towns are like that.  A delay, then the vice-principal’s voice, “Yes…but carefully.”

I turned to face the students casually arranged in seating of their choice before me, my  tears unshed but pending.  This is what is wonderful about eighth graders: at their best, they are sensitive to everything (this is also what makes them a challenge!).  I delivered the news, and they sat there.  Who knows what actually goes on in the mind of anyone else?  Maiers’ campaign, the two words, weren’t part of our suicide prevention lexicon yet.

“Guys,” I said, “do you want to talk about this?”  Silence, averted eyes, hands clasping, releasing.  Waiting, waiting, waiting.  Ever the teacher, I began, but this was from my heart, no scripted lesson.  These were my kids, this my community, this our shared confusion and devastation.

The exact words are lost to me, but I remember my breathtaking conviction: I wanted them to know that if anything happened to any one of them, I would never be the same.  Each one of them represented my best hope for the world, my belief in better for us all.  Did I use the words “You matter?”  I might have, but I added, and this I do recall, “to me, and not only me, but to everyone here, all your teachers, your friends.  Without you, we are less.  We won’t ever fully recover.”

When I discussed these suicides with my teenage son, my one and only, these were my final words , “Sam, you just can’t take your own life.  Your dad and I would not survive it.”

“Way to lay on the guilt, mom,” he quipped.

“Whatever it takes.”

That afternoon the bell rang, but the kids didn’t move.  Tomas, a child who rarely spoke said, “Ms. Emerson, I will not forget.”  Who knows what lives inside the minds of others?  “We’re here to make our own lives hold meaning in stories and connections.”  I hope.

5 thoughts on “Two Words”

  1. There’s a huge lump in my throat that developed as I read your slice. My G-d, what tragedy has befallen your community. I cannot imagine how you have been navigating these waters with your students. Sounds like you’re leading woh your heart, which will help your kids understand their importance.

    I get what you said to your son. You say what you have to say to get him to understand how you would not be able to cope if something happened to him. As a parent, I get it.

    1. That you took the time to read my blog and tendered such kind words has made my day! (I have been following YOUR blog for over a year now…). Thank you for everything.

  2. This was such a personal slice. Thank you for sharing it with us. I loved how you pulled that quote in from Maier at the beginning and connected it with such a sad circumstance in your community. It was good for you to talk about it with your students. I hope they feel like they matter; I definitely got that from your writing, that you care about them.

  3. Very raw slice. Suicide is something that we have had to confront. My daughter’s fiend in middle school, and a family member just last fall. It is unimaginable that someone can feel like they have no choice. You gave your students a choice, a reason to live.

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