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too soon.

It was Thanksgiving 2011, and I was standing in a monstrous line outside of Target in Orem with all the Tuckett girls.  I don't recall the time, but I know it was very late.  I was the cheer coach at the junior high during that year, and while I was freezing in that ridiculous line, I received a text message from one of my cheerleaders that rocked me to my core.  One of my students had died.  The cause? Suicide.  That was to be my first experience, as a teacher, with that epidemic.

Natalie had been my student as an 8th grader and again as a 9th grader.  She was beautiful, funny, sassy, and had lots of friends.  It just didn't make sense, and in my experience, it rarely does.  I immediately did was most people do when receiving that news--I raked over all my memories desperately searching for the signs that I must have missed.  Natalie wasn't a straight A student, and I hadn't noticed any differences in her academics.  She had participated in class, visited with me and her peers, and been attending school.  Nothing in her writing reflected darkness or concern.  But there was one thing that haunted me, and still does.  Natalie sat by herself.  In my seating chart design, I had an odd number of students. That meant one of them didn't have a pair.  Natalie was the odd man out, and I asked myself over and over if I had missed something because I hadn't given her a friend to keep an eye on her.  What if she felt excluded because of my seating chart?  I realize it sounded slightly absurd, but as her teacher, I felt mountainous guilt over it.  Still do.

Natalie was the first student I lost, but she wasn't the last.  I have lost six students in 9 years, and most of them have been to suicide.  My first overall experience with suicide happened in 8th grade, and I lost numerous peers between then and graduation.  Even a few after.  It doesn't ever get less shocking.  In fact, I have found that is much harder to handle as an adult than it ever was as a teen. I'm so much more aware of what they will miss out on, and, what's worse, what their parents might be feeling.  That was my thought when we lost another student to suicide about a month ago.

I've been pretty quiet on here for a minute as I've tried to wrap my brain around the holidays, work, death, and life.  As I've had some time to be a little bit more still, I've contemplated why suicide is such a problem in my community, and among teens in general.  I've come up with a few ideas, none of which are scientifically proven.  Take it as you will.

First, these teens don't know how to fail.  Well meaning parents are so quick to swoop in and save the day before hardship hits, that when the helicopter mom is away and trial does strike, these kids don't know how to handle it.  I have watched as parents refuse to let their kids fail.  They do their homework for them, make sure they have all the latest and greatest to keep up with their peers, and have conversations for them.  I've literally had a student walk in to my classroom and hand me her cell phone so her mom could tell me that her assignment wasn't finished because she was too tired to get it done in the three weeks she had the chance to.  This was a 15 year old honors student, who has been so crippled that she can't come have a conversation with a teacher she sees every day.  I mean, I'm not exactly warm and fuzzy, but come on... Failing is part of learning, and if we don't allow the kids to experience failure, they will never grow.  Guidance is key, especially when it comes to navigating through difficulty, but I wish I saw more parents resist the urge to step in and take over.  Whatever happened to telling a kid to rub some dirt in it?

Next--pressure.  My community has a lot of activities for student involvement and all of them are exceptionally competitive.  Athletics, academics, arts... we've got it all and are known for it all.  These kids are taught from an early age that we expect greatness--perfection, even.  I had a cheerleader one year collapse at practice from sheer exhaustion.  She spent her days at school, cheering at the games, going straight to dance until 9:30PM, doing homework until it was done so she was eligible to cheer, then showing up for cheer practice at 5 the next morning.  I wish I could say this was an exception, but I see students maintaining this schedule regularly.  These kids are stretched so thin and expected to perform at certain levels, that sometimes the perception isn't achievable and they see no other way out.  I'm all for extracurricular activities, and firmly believe that if you don't provide your kids with something to do they will find things to do that either involve Fortnite or drugs.  However, let's be realistic and recognize the idea that we should strive for moderation.

Guess what? It's the one you've all been waiting for... social media.  I am not going to sit here and tell you that social media is bad and kids shouldn't be on it.  Mostly because I think that is a load of garbage.  I do believe though that supervision is not only important, but crucial.  These kids are bombarded with so many images and messages from social media that their brain development is affected.  Kids need to be taught what is realistic and what is not.  They need to realize that they are looking at every ones' highlight reel, and it is ridiculous to compare that to their own struggles.  I love one of the first scenes in the new Jumanji movie that shows the girl taking a selfie and going to great lengths to "appear" like she just woke up to a perfect life. Kids need to realize that what seems like effortless glamour is usually filtered, cropped, photoshopped, and redone 27 times.  Because the virtual world is so confusing, these kids feel empowered to do and say things that they wouldn't normally do and say.  They are mean, disrespectful, and fake.  I took a poll among my students, and 98% of them had said something on social media that they never would have said in real life. 100% of those said their comment was degrading or unkind.  That is ridiculous.

The Monday after I received the text message about Natalie's death was rough.  She was in 5th period, and when that class period started everyone was intensely aware of the obviously empty seat on the left of the room.  Our kids are, unfortunately, becoming acquainted with grief and death at an early age.  I feel helpless in my quest to reverse that, but hopeful in my chance to be more aware and assertive in my efforts to reach out to them.  I'm aware that teens are not the only group affected by suicide, but they are my world, and as such the one I see the most.  My experience has proven that it is rarely the ones who seem like a flight risk that actually are.  It's the ones who cover it up best, which means that no one is exempt.  So have the conversations with your kids.  Ask them the tough questions.  I realize I can't save them all, but I will be much more diligent in giving everyone a voice and a purpose in my classroom.   


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