The boy had just turned 15 two weeks prior to his death. He was in my first year Latin class at a prep school. One early afternoon last week, I was called out of my class to the office with his other teachers to be told the news. He had killed himself.
What followed was a testimony to the power of small schools and a dedicated staff. That word dedicated is used in flimsy ways, but when you see dedication, it makes an impact on you. This being my first year at this school and not my first student death, I was heartened to see the response on the part of students and staff.
It turned out that the mother wanted me to play a part in the funeral. I do not recall meeting her but apparently the boy spoke highly of my class and so she wanted me to be a reader along with another of his teachers. Being used to Pentacostal funerals, I thought a reader would be like all the people who step to the pulpit to say a few words, some speakers being listed in the program and some not. Not so. There was some ceremony to it and I was given something to read. It went well.
I won’t go into detail out of respect for the family. The most difficult part for me, aside from seeing the mother from my vantage point, was meeting her. Somehow I managed to get into the reception area before anyone else and just as she was sitting down. I introduced myself and she broke down again, saying she knew who I was and how much she appreciated, etc., etc. That’s when I had my toughest moment.
Watching her and meeting her was a very painful thing, and I’ve had to deal with quite a bit of death in my family. Her appearance was wrenching. She reminded me of that final scene in The Perfect Storm where the captain slips out through the wheelhouse and is seen floating on the face of a monster wave. She leaned, and at times doubled over, in grief.
I am talking about her and not her son because he’s not here but the effect of all of us teachers on him and on her was great, in part b/c she is apparently alone. It was just her and her son. The way we treated him was the way we treated her. We do not and, I believe, no one knows why this boy took his own life. We may never know; his mother may never know. But it was so clear to me during that painful funeral mass that everything we did for her boy at our school will resonate with her forever, lightening her burden a bit. While our acts were insufficient, clearly, they were sufficient for that moment, b/c he spoke of us and knew we cared and his mother knew we cared.
And that is why I write this for my blog, knowing that whoever reads this as a teacher will keep that uppermost in his mind. As the doctors say, do no harm.