Trigger Warning for discussion of suicide, suicide ideation.
I live in the Magic Valley. At times, it has been referred to as the Tragic Valley.
The latter label applied this weekend.
A student from a nearby high school completed suicide on Friday. On Monday, his friends and classmates staged a walkout, at which point the hand-wringing commenced.
Local media outlets posted the story on their Facebook pages, and the community responded. During the morning show (I moonlight as a morning show personality on Fridays), my friend James talked about the situation and took phone calls from students who wanted to tell the community what was going on. Then we posted a question prompt on our Facebook page. Some of the responses were empathetic. Some were not. It is the second type of response I want to discuss.
Much of the criticism leveled at the students can be distilled down to a main argument: We are the adults. Let us handle this. This sentiment was summed up so perfectly in a comment we got on the radio station’s Facebook page.
You see, they are adults. They understand how sensitive the situation is for the family, friends and their school. They do not resort to anger. Yes, anger is a natural part of grief, but what we need to do is teach our children the right way to deal with their anger and other grief stages.
Do adults have more life experience? Yes. Do teachers and counselors have more training for dealing with this kind of situation? Usually. Are they better at grieving than students? Not necessarily.
My family has a complicated history with mood disorders and suicide ideation. Even staring it in the face hasn’t helped me understand. But I’m also not going to pretend to know how to “make” other people understand, simply by virtue of being an adult. And while it’s easy enough to be an armchair administrator today, I hope that if faced with a similar situation, I’d listen to the content of what the students were trying to communicate, even if their delivery appeared ill-conceived or ill-timed to other adults in the room.
The way I understand it, the students who walked out did so quietly and returned to class relatively quickly. They were frustrated, sad, grief-stricken, angry. All within the range of normal human emotion. But I don’t think this is really about whether or not the students were grieving properly. This is about authority.
Details are still scarce, but we do know that the student completed his suicide on Friday, and that students heard about it and talked to each other via text and social media over the weekend. When it appeared that nothing was being planned at the school for Monday, they coordinated the walk-out. And the fact that they planned it without the prior approval of the school administration is what upsets people. They may couch it as concern for glorifying suicide. It seems to me that what angers them is the students did not follow the adults’ plan for their grief.
I’ve written about the Cult of Compliance before. It’s one of those things that once you see it, you cannot unsee it. This may seem like a bit of a leap, but if you bear with me, you may see it, too.
Although the context was different, this conversation-of-sorts played out like many encounters between the powerful and the powerless. Feeling that no one was listening to them, the powerless (that’s the high school students) say Enough! and offer a demonstration. The powerful, while appearing to hear what the powerless are saying, divert attention from the issue at hand with distractions about timing (You should have waited for the administration to make an announcement), tactics (Leaving class isn’t going to solve anything. You would get further by talking like a mature adult), and appeals to authority (The teachers know what they’re doing. Just wait for them to tell you how to grieve appropriately). Again, as a teacher, I am assuming the teachers were doing the best they could while dealing with the death of yet another student. Most of my frustration isn’t really directed at them, anyway, but at a system that is more concerned with enforcing compliance than it is with comforting the aggrieved. There are people who spent more keystrokes expressing their disapproval for the quiet protest than they dedicate to learning about the underlying factors that may contribute to teen suicide in this region.
Frankly, I find the above sentiments condescending. Downright insulting, if I’m feeling particularly rankled. Yes, young people often need guidance through grief. But so do adults–I went through a thirteen-week support group program to get unstuck from my own grief a few years ago. I am sure the teachers and administrators had the best of intentions for helping their students; after all, they lost someone too. But people who are hurting often hurt other people in the process. And I sure as hell am not going to tell a group of grieving students that their anger is wrong.
All behavior is communication. The students communicated this: We are sad, we are angry, and we have no voice. The adults who felt the need to scold the students communicated this: My discomfort with the way you showed your grief is more important than the reality of your grief.
Sometimes we adults need to remember we don’t have all the answers by sheer virtue of being adults. Sometimes we need to listen. This is one of those times. And we need to listen hard, because we can’t hear the sounds of hearts breaking if we’re too busy scolding them for making a mess.