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Posts Tagged ‘suicide’

A student told me today that I was almost like an angel or a saint—“One of those people who never do anything wrong.” She listed the traditional “sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll” kinds of activities. At the time, I explained that I had made choices based on a long-term perception of how I wanted my life to be and the conversations I didn’t want to have with my spouse. I then launched into a discussion of how our choices affect our lives, specifically in the areas of sex and drugs.

I realized, however, as I thought about it, that I didn’t make good decisions because I was so wise as a teenager, but because I wasn’t around all the stuff these kids are. I didn’t know anyone who was divorced when I was in junior high or anyone that wasn’t living with both biological parents (unless one of them had died.) I couldn’t have found drugs if I wanted them (except on a family trip to New York when I was offered crack), and I knew very few people who drank in high school—and those only by reputation, never around me. It’s an entirely different world from the place my students live.

To allow others who may have been similarly sheltered to understand what my students deal with, I wanted to type out a portion of their stories in their own words. The writing is in response to an autobiography project that I assigned. They started with a list of five events that had impacted their lives. Then, they could either pick one to tell in detail or all five in summary. Those were the only instructions I gave them. I got a few “When I got my tongue pierced” or “The day I met my best friend” essays, but more were much more tragic. I think for me the greatest tragedy was the realization that for these kids, there was nothing abnormal or weird about sharing these stories—it is their “normal.” I asked them for permission to share their stories with you. So here they are, in their voice, the stories of their lives :

1. When I was young, my mom lost custody of me and my brother. My grandma [name] got custody. They are still fighting for us today. My brother has seizures, so he’s kind of mental. I have two sisters and three brothers. My mom and dad were never married.
Now, my mom is engaged and my dad is now married. My dad has been married for five years almost. My family is kind of hectic. My grandma is married and has been married for six years. I moved here from [location]. I’m hoping that I’ll move down there next month after the ninth. I haven’t lived with my mom for seven years. I moved here in the third grade when I was nine. . . .

2. The first thing I remember is police busting through the door arresting my dad for drug trafficking. I was small. I’m not sure how I remember this, but Tupac’s “Hail Mary” was playing and the stove was on. My mom and I were crying.
Another memory from my childhood is me, about three now, sitting in a tub. My mother was washing my feet. I cried because the water was too hot. I got burned.
I remember when I was thirteen, when my dad was arrested again—on Christmas. My mom went to rehab for alcohol abuse. My brother and I cried together.
I remember being forced to share a house with my grandparents, staying outside all day, playing football and basketball with my brother.
I remember my first fist fight. I won. But, I felt so bad.
I remember the first time I thought I was cool and try a cigarette. I coughed my lungs out. I almost died. Ha-ha. . . .
I remember a lot of things. Negative or not, the memories have made and shaped who I am today.

3. Birth. My parents got divorced. My dad got remarried. My mom got remarried. I ended up with two sisters and three brothers on my mom’s side. My step mom told me she was pregnant on my birthday. Worst birthday ever because I wanted to be Daddy’s little girl. Sixth grade, my little sister was born. I was scared. My mom took my dad to court for custody of me. We lost. My dad wouldn’t talk to me for a few weeks after that. Seventh grade, I got in my first fight. I was afraid my dad was going to kill me, but he just said as long as I didn’t lose, then I wouldn’t be in trouble. And now, here I am.

4. When I was a little kid, my dad was not a good one. He is/was a drug addict. My mom had me at a young age and wasn’t married to my father. My mom had me in April, and they got married in September. She married him because she thought he would change. But, he didn’t change. He would steal my mom’s car and leave. When he left, he would go get high on cocaine or marijuana and stay out until it wore off. When he would come home, he would make up lies about where he was at. My mom dealt with it for a long time. Then, I found out that my mom was pregnant with my sister. She had my sister and still put up with his crap. In August [year], they finally got divorced. I was sad about it, but then I got over it. He couldn’t keep a job and was in jail a couple of times. In March [year], I got a call that my dad wanted to see me. I went home and saw him. He was with my cousin. My cousin and my mom were talking, and my dad took me in my room and said he wanted to talk to me. We sat on my bed and he started to cry. He had been doing drugs and told me that he didn’t want to live anymore. I screamed and started crying. My cousin and my mom ran in the room and asked what happened. Then, they left, and I didn’t see my dad for a while. In October [year], my dad went to jail for a month and a half. It was sad, but then again, oh well. He is now sort of stable and has a job. But, if any of that wouldn’t have happened, my mom probably wouldn’t be the woman she is now and wouldn’t have raised me like she did. I probably wouldn’t be as strong as I am now and independent.

5. I grew up in a house with four rooms two bathrooms. I lived with my mom, dad, and two sisters. This was until I was six. My mom decided to move out and get a divorce. We went to my aunt’s house for a couple of days, then moved out to [location.] I lived there from [time]. I went to first and second grade in [location]. We had moved in with my uncle. Things got bad between me and his daughter, so we went back to my aunt’s. This time, we lived in the back house, which the last time was occupied. We lived there for like two years. In [year], my mom wanted to move again, so we did. We had to move schools again and make new friends. Well, I liked it because it wasn’t that hard. . . .

6. I don’t really remember when I was born, so I’ll skip to when I was five. When I was five, my mom, my mom’s ex, and I used to live in [location.] My dad would always think my mom would cheat on him. He was a truck driver, coming home only some weekends, so he did not know. I know my mom didn’t cheat on him because I’m here from like __to two o’clock. So then my mom and dad divorced. We got kicked out of our house and forced to move here. We lived with our uncle until his wife didn’t want us to live at their house. So we moved into my grandfather’s house. I loved it there because he didn’t care what we did at all. My life has been very well after all of this. My mom has a very good job and she is very well. . . .

7. [Date] is one day I will never forget. One interesting day, I should say. That day I won’t forget because I lost my dad that day. I was at my friend [name]’s house, and early in the morning, my dad got up and decided that he didn’t want to be around anymore. He got up, and he got dressed. He and my mom got into a huge fight. They wouldn’t stop. They argued about everything, until my dad got so far, he grabbed a knife and started going towards my older brother’s room, and my mom had to call the cops. The cops heard the whole thing over the phone and were sent to our house right away. My dad was escorted out and told it would be best if he were to stay gone for a few days. It ended up being more than a few days. When I came home, he was gone. I saw my dad again that July when there was a medical emergency including me where I had to go to the hospital because my little brother shattered a glass window in my face at about three inches away from my face. I was put into the emergency room for eight hours. They took X-rays of my face and hands and then sent me home.
The problems just spiraled out of control from there. My brother was sent to a mental institution, shortly after the incident with my face, and we went in for family counseling. One year later, my little brother was released and sent back home. Before he was released in [time], I had stopped seeing my dad in [time]. I haven’t seen him in a year, nor has he tried to contact me in over a year. I really don’t understand why it seems like my dad didn’t care, and if he did, he had an odd way of showing it. I kind of miss my dad, but I don’t really miss the things he said and he did. On [date], my parents will be getting a divorce, and then me and my two siblings will be put in a custody battle. This will probably be a long, hard process, but it will have to be done. I hope to have all the fighting over with soon, but with all this, something good is sure to come.

8. A few months after living a life of abuse and lies, I broke. I couldn’t handle the stress, and I couldn’t bear living with my mistakes. I found a bottle of pills and took nearly twenty. I was numb. I stumbled into my room. Becoming more and more dizzy, I began to pass out. My sister walked into the room, picked up the pill bottle, and screamed. She quickly told my mom what had happened. She was screaming, crying, and starting the car. I was rushed to the hospital. My family was shocked. I was forced to stay awake until a room had opened. I could hear my mom filling in the rest of the family. I could only make out a few words… “She found Grandma’s pills…she was raped.” I closed my eyes as I was put on a stretcher. My inner thoughts were screaming, “Take me, take me, take me already.” The nurse interrupted them as she impatiently shoved a large white bottle in my right hand and a straw in my left. “Drink quickly, sweetheart.” I took a sip. Charcoal. I should have known. I drank hastily, growing more and more terrified. I heard my step sister inform my mother what had to come next. 72 hours in a padded room. I trembled. “Why hadn’t I just used a quicker method?” My inner voice boomed in my head. By now it was 11:00 pm. I had arrived at around 3:00 pm. I was exhausted. Hauled onto a stretcher, the paramedic socialized and tried to give me advice. I fell asleep, and awoke in a new hospital. A mental hospital. I stayed there for almost a week. I will never forget this experience. And I hope nobody will make the mistakes I have.

These are just a sampling, but I think they paint a clear picture. May we love well and never be fooled by the calm exterior. Additionally, may we realize that not everyone’s dealt the same hand in life, but as so many of my students did, understand that regardless of the hardships, there is still hope.

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Today was one of those days I live for as a teacher: the kind of day when the lesson plan gets thrown out the window (modified) and you just deal with life lessons.

We have been doing speeches recently. Public Speaking is an eighth grade state standard, and I had given my students the encouragement to pick a topic they were passionate about–either positively or negatively, explaining that if you loved something or it made you angry, you were more able to speak for three minutes, hold the audience’s attention, and otherwise make it easy on yourself. I knew I had a winner when one of my Honors students picked the topic of depression.

By way of background knowledge, this is a beautiful, popular young woman. What a number of her classmates didn’t know (which I knew through a variety of journals and her personal narrative paper), was that this girl had struggled with severe depression–to the point of having to be in an institution this year. When she asked if she should do the topic, I told her I thought it was an incredible opportunity to give meaning to her pain–to allow her experience to impact others lives. She asked if I wanted her to share her story. I responded that if she was willing, I felt it would help many students in her class that see her as this picture perfect image. Thankfully, she was willing.

Yesterday, a number of her classmates were out, so, while I could have had her give her speech then, I (with the remaining class members’ votes) decided to have her wait until today so everyone could hear.

Her 3-5 minute speech initially took about 7 minutes, with her stumbling around the symptoms and causes of depression. Finally, she got to her story. When she switched into that mode, she gained confidence and was extremely transparent about the reasons she had struggled with depression and her experience in the facility. Her classmates hung on her words. She shared the struggles she had undergone resulting in an attempt to take her own life. She praised her classmates who had been there for her to encourage her. She explained how she had learned to share her feelings with others and allow them to help her through her situation. It was a truly unforgettable experience.

I am thankful today was a catch-up day, because we only ended up having about 15 minutes for Shakespeare, Vocabulary, and continued work on research papers. But, as one student shared with her, “I feel like I used to know who you were–we had a few conversations, but didn’t really talk much. But, now, I think I have a lot more respect for you. I’ve seen what you’ve gone through, and what you’ve overcome. Thanks for sharing with us.” Those moments–the times when human beings truly are genuine with each other–are precious indeed. And in the midst of that, we were able to open up a taboo subject and show students that everyone has struggles, and we can overcome them, if we will stick together and encourage one another.

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Yesterday, I taught my now annual lesson on suicide. I added it to my standard curriculum about 2 years ago when one of our recent graduates committed suicide. This past Spring, another student killed himself.

I use the poem “The Thread” by Ellen Hopkins, which is a poem of intricate design and artistry. I initially picked it because of its powerful imagery and how well it illustrates the fact that “Free Verse” doesn’t mean “No design.” I read it on the back cover of the book Impulse and loved it. (For those who have not seen it, it introduces the story of three teenagers who try to commit suicide, fail, and end up in the same rehab facility.)

The basic structure of the lesson goes like this:

1. I begin with a journal topic: What was the most difficult time for you to keep on going? What was it that helped you make it through?

Students write for about 3-5 minutes and then we share responses.

2. We read “The Thread” aloud. The last line of the poem is “Put the gun to your chest.” When we get there, most students react: “WHAT?!?” I immediately ask them for their initial reactions to the poem. Usually, I get the typical answers: Depression, suicidal, psycho, emo, etc. Occasionally, like this year, they go a little deeper: loneliness, they feel like no one cares…

3. Then, I go through the poem and ask them a series of questions right out of the poem: “How many of you wish you could stop thinking sometimes? (every hand.) How many of you have been in a situation where you wish people would just leave you alone? (every hand) How many of you have wanted to forget something about the past? (every hand)…” There are about 10 questions I draw from the poem.

I then explain that I include this poem in the collection because we have recently had two former students commit suicide. I share that at Zach’s memorial service, his mom stated, “There are a number of problems with suicide. First, no one talks about it. Second, everyone that commits suicide feels like they’re alone–that no one understands what they’re going through.” I gesture around the room and say, “Obviously, that’s not true. Maybe they don’t understand your exact circumstances, but I guarantee you, they can relate.”

4. We then discuss the options kids have when dealing with problems: i.e., counselling, play a sport, write in a journal, go to a friend’s house, etc. I explain that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. All problems will pass–don’t make a decision you can’t rethink to handle a problem that will eventually resolve itself.

5. Finally, I discuss the design in the poem–the repetition of words which make a “thread” running through the poem, breaking off at the stanza beginning, “Act.” I also explain the cliché “Hanging on by a thread.”

All in all, it’s a very raw, real day. This year, I happened to have the sister of one of the boys who killed himself. She didn’t talk much, but I talked to her today to make sure she had been okay, explaining, “I don’t want what happened to your brother to happen to anyone else.” I also had a student write me a note which explained that “I don’t usually talk about emotions, but I trust you…” She proceeded to explain that her mother had robbed their family for drug money, cheated on her dad (who moved the family away from her), then promised to come back and never did. My student was 5 when all of this happened.

Giving kids coping tools is one way we can help them make it to graduation–not just academically, but alive.

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Over the past two days I have a number of difficult discussions with students. It reminds me that we should never shy away from the tough topics. It’s through tackling the hard issues that we are really able to change lives. Here are my top 5: 1. I asked to see a student who had been responsible for giving another student drugs that she overdosed on. Luckily, she didn’t die. The police are watching the situation, but it’s difficult to get proof. This kid is incredible smart, but everyone else has written him off as “He’ll be in jail by the time he’s 16.” Hopefully, we can change that. I pulled him aside and said, “I want to talk to you about some of the choices you’re making. I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you, but you are incredibly smart. You have amazing potential, but you can throw it all away by making stupid choices. One of your classmates almost died last week, and I understand she got things from you. I don’t want to talk to you on the other side of s TV screen or be standing with you at a funeral like ( a teacher’s son who overdosed last week) and knowing it was your fault they’re there. You are probably one of the smartest kids at this school, but you’re wasting your life on stupid stuff, and you need to start making better choices.” The bell rang, and he nodded. He had gotten suspended that day, but we agreed to talk more at length. 2. I kept a student after class to talk about her relationship with her boyfriend. He always has his hands on her, usually inappropriately. I’ve seen her push him away at time, and he resists strongly, which makes me nervous! I have tried to talk to him, but he doesn’t listen, so I approached her. I explained to her what people think of you when you allow someone to be that physical with you in public. She said, “Oh, no, Miss Brailey, we’re not . . .” I explained that I was concerned for her and her reputation, and it concerned me that he wouldn’t leave her alone when she pushed him away. She thanked me and went to talk to him. He was a jerk to me in class, so I’m sure she drew some boundaries—we’ll see how things go. 3. After school, a boy came into my room. He calls me “Madre” because his relationship with his own mother is horrible, and I’ve told him I will stand in for her when he needs me. He and some friends were just coming to say hi. His friend pointed out the hickie on his neck. He blanched visibly, and said, “That’s my mom. Why are you going to say stuff like that about me in front of her?” I asked him if we needed to talk, and he said, “Don’t worry. There was no sexual intercourse involved.” I told him “Good” and “Be smart.” He also struggles with substance abuse issues, so we’ve chatted on numerous occasions about that. He gave me a hug, promising me he would. 4. On the way to the basketball game, I saw an alumnus of our school, and gave him a hug and asked how he was doing. “I’ve been clean for 10 months!” He told me proudly. “Awesome!” I congratulated him. “But, I’ve still got this.” He lifted his pant leg to reveal his ankle bracelet. He went on to explain that the court had tried to charge him with his friend’s overdose as a murder, but he’d gotten off. “I’m trying to turn my life around, Miss Brailey,” he told me. “And you can do it.” I responded. He told me he’s back going to church and trying to live like he should. I gave him a hug and headed to the game. 5. At the game, I ran into another alumnus. He had struggled with substance abuse through high school, and had come to my room often to try to sort out issues. He shared with me that his grandpa had just died and he had saved his dad’s life. When I asked what had happened, he shared that his dad had taken a shot of something because he was upset about his dad dying. He had stopped breathing, so my student had pulled the car over, dragged him out of the car, and punched him several times in the chest. Apparently, that re-started his heart, and he began to breathe again. He told me he’s still struggling to get out of drinking and drugs and get his diploma. “You always told me, ‘(Name), You’re smarter than this.’ and you were right. It just took me a while to realize it. It’s a journey, but I’m changing my life, I’m going to church, and trying to do what’s right.” He gave me a huge hug and kissed me on the cheek, “I love you to death.” He told me, “You have no idea. I could always tell you anything, and you’d never judge me. I’m going to get my diploma and bring it by your room.” Five kids and a normal few days of life. A good reminder to be willing to have the difficult conversations. You may not see the results immediately, but as my alumni showed me, you will see them.

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First semester, I always cover poetry as it’s an 8th grade state standard for Indiana.  I have recently added a new poem to my collection, which has enabled me to talk about some pretty heavy themes.  The poem is “The Thread” by Ellen Raskin from her book Impulse.  You can find it on the back cover of the book.  I use the poem to talk about free verse, as there is no rhyme or rhythm, but Ellen has designed the poem to make a thread with the words which ends with the word Act.  But, it is the content of the poem which made me choose it.  “The Thread” is a poem about three teenagers who attempt suicide and fail. 

While attending the funeral of a recent graduate who had chosen to end his own life, I was made aware by his mom that suicide is something that needs to be talked about.  Another student at my school attempted suicide this summer, and I know countless others who have contemplated it.  Suicide is a subject that needs to be brought into the light.  This poem is the way I do it. 

This year, we read the poem together.  Initially the kids are in shock, as the last line is “Put the gun to my chest.”  Once they got past the “Wow, Psycho!” comments, I asked them what they thought about it.  They correctly identify that the poem is written from the perspective of someone who is suicidal.  I explained the background of Raskin’s book and pointed out her obvious design in the poem.  We talked about the metaphors in the title:  Hanging on by a thread (Which breaks when the person attempts suicide.) 

When I initially asked what they can relate to in the poem, I was greeted by blank stares.  So, I asked some questions from the poem.  “How many of you have wished you could stop thinking?”  Every hand goes up.  “How many of you have memories you wish you could forget?”  Again every hand.  “Did you ever want to stop replaying a conversation over and over in your head?”  Every hand.  I began to share with them that one of the biggest lie someone who’s suicidal feels is that they’re alone.  That nobody understands what they’re feeling.  “Obviously,” I said, “That’s a lie, as everyone of you just said you’ve been there.” 

We then proceeded to talk about “Coping methods.”  What can you do when you feel this way?  The kids had some very good ideas:  Talk to someone, play a sport, consider someone who has less than you, etc.  The thing that most hit me happened in my fifth hour class.   We were sharing as usual, and one girl piped up, “I thought about killing myself this summer.  I’m still torn up about my dad leaving.  I decided not to because I thought about how it would affect my mom and my sisters if I died.”  Another boy chimed in, “Yeah, I was like that–my dad and brother make fun of me a lot, so it’s hard to be at home.  I thought about killing myself, but I decided it wasn’t worth it.  I had too much to lose.”   These were two VERY popular kids.  I shared with both of them (And the class who was listening in) about the fact that killing yourself doesn’t just eliminate you, it takes out anyone who would come through your line (kids, grandkids, etc.)  I also challenged the class to make sure to let each other know what they meant to one another, as they could have lost two classmates.  I also told the students who shared how glad I was that they had chosen to stay with us and the difference they make for me. 

So, poetry can be a great way to teach life skills–literally and figuratively.  Who knew!

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