No one ever tells you how to cope with a friend’s suicide. Even fewer people can tell you how to teach a class of his friends the day after.
I had been teaching college literature and composition courses for ten years, but this was only my second year at the Career Academy, the home for dual-enrollment students in Athens, Georgia. On this warm September morning, I arrived early to avoid meeting anyone in the hallways, to collect myself before dealing with high schoolers. We would have a lesson, yes. Naturally. While writing the key concepts on the board, however, my mind drifted back to Michael — how his dad found his body in his bedroom the day before.
I stopped writing; my eyes closed. Everything felt so pointless.
I exhaled slowly. You can do this.
I inhaled deeply. My eyes watered.
I wondered what lessons I would impress on students today.
My reverie ended as my students arrived, laughing, talking loudly. How had so little in their worlds changed, when everything in mine had? How could they be so carefree?
A fog enveloped my mind, muting everything around me. Even the overhead lights seemed dimmer than normal.
I hoped I wasn’t the only one feeling this way, but I also hoped I was.
Then it was 9:00, time to start class. Rising from my swivel chair, I asked for their attention. Surprisingly, they quieted down more quickly than normal. Did they see how disheveled my insides were? Did they care?
“I lost a friend yesterday,” I began, struggling for words. “Maybe you did, too.”
I surveyed the room for any recognition in their eyes. They began looking around. A nod. Then another. A bowed head. A hand squeezed another classmate’s hand.
“If you’re like me, you probably don’t know how to feel. If I’m honest, I’m halfway between crying and throwing up.” I realized the feeling I’d been trying to verbalize all morning was nausea. Addressing an audience of students had sharpened my mind.
A girl at the front wore sympathy on her face. Another girl looked more in shock. Were they reacting to me? Or was this their own grief? Still silent. I wished they would mumble at least.
“I knew Michael for nine years,” I said. In an instant, memories took me back to my church, where I knew his family, taught his Sunday School class, and even chaperoned several youth trips with Michael and his older sister, Kala. But what flashed most vividly was his seven-year-old face, beaming up at me from his Nintendo DS after realizing I called him by his name for the first time. That wide-eyed grin, so full of life and hope, was hard to reconcile with the events of yesterday.
“Some of you probably knew him longer,” I continued. “We don’t know why he did this to himself. I’m not sure what to do today, but it wouldn’t be right to ignore this. So we’re acknowledging what happened.”
I forget how the next minutes passed. Blame the fog. I gave them a “quiz”; all the questions were some variant of “Write down something you’re happy for today.” We passed the hour discussing what it meant to belong — to society, to a community, to our friends and family. (How fortunate that this was already the topic for discussion that day.) When first period ended, there were no tears. We held sorrow at bay.
I dismissed the class, but several students stayed behind to talk with me. The sympathetic-faced girl approached first.
“Just wanted to say how much it means that you said something about him today. I was feeling like none of my teachers would even wanna mention it.”
“Me too,” another girl said. Her voice broke off; another student wrapped her arm around her. “I’m okay. It’s just not fair.”
“I know,” I said, feeling underwhelmed at my response. “But you all take care of each other. That’s what friends do.”
Before I could continue, the next class began filing in. This was the girls’ cue to shuffle out the door between the groups of entering students. I turned back to face my empty chair, gathering my thoughts before repeating it all over.
I turned around just as Alex, Michael’s best friend, strode through the door. The moment I had most been dreading today. His stocky frame moved quicker than expected, heading right for me. I froze.
Alex buried the crown of his head in my chest and put his arms around me. No words, no sobbing. Without thinking, I wrapped an arm around his shoulders.
“I know, I know,” I whispered in his ear. He just held on. I knew Alex almost as long as Michael; we weren’t as close, but now we were fellow survivors.
Several students stopped to stare at this spectacle. Time paused for twenty seconds. Then Alex looked into my eyes, into my vulnerability, no longer his teacher but a wounded person trying to keep it together. We nodded at each other, and the moment passed.
We would get through this.
In the days and months that followed, I saw candlelight vigils, T-shirts, and even a scholarship fund devoted to Michael’s memory. His legacy. At the end of the year, many students reflecting on what they learned said that our class on that day was the most meaningful classroom experience they had all year. Sometimes, our best lessons are the ones we hope we never have to teach.