Suicide letter assignment under review after risks highlighted
This story was brought to my attention yesterday and it has left me processing several emotions and thoughts. I do not know any more than what has been reported in the news, and it is not my intention to vilify the teacher involved, but there are some things I do know and need to say.
First, I am a high school English teacher, and I do know that literature is valuable for engaging readers in important conversations about life and the human experience. I do know that understanding character motivation and perspectives are standard outcomes in the curriculum I am required to teach. I do know that writing is an important skill and powerful tool for processing and synthesizing thoughts and ideas. I also know that audience, purpose and format are crucial considerations for all writing. This is also in the curriculum.
I’m wondering if assigning a suicide letter (regardless of how the assignment is being framed, this is in essence what it is) was indeed the best format for meeting these outcomes.
Second, I am not a statistician or a school counsellor, but what I do know is that in any given class I teach, approximately 10% of the students have written real suicide letters. Sometimes multiple letters. Some have attempted suicide. These are only the ones who have bravely shared this information with me; I am sure the actual percentage is much higher. I do know that our youth and young adults are struggling with very real issues related to depression and anxiety. They are at risk not only for suicide, but also for addictions and self-harm. I do know that we need to be having honest conversations about these issues in order to provide the knowledge and supports necessary to prevent them.
I’m wondering if we can use literature and writing as tools to help students wrestle with these issues in ways that provide a path to move beyond them rather than deeper into them.
And lastly, I am a parent who is in possession of a very real suicide letter. I do know that real suicide letters do not provide any tidy answers to numbered questions about motivation or even any meaningful insight into how the person actually felt about much of anything. I do know that they are so gut-wrenchingly painful to read that even now I am berefit of adequate descriptive words. I do know that the one in a manila folder in our files is my son’s last words; the last time I will ever see his distinctive handwriting; the last time he signed his name with its signature flourish on the J. I hate that letter and yet I cannot part with it.
I also know that real suicide letters that accompany the real death of a child result in parents having to write real eulogies and epitaphs. Both were by far the hardest things I have ever written. Both were as inadequate in summarizing a son so dearly loved as the suicide letter was in explaining why life had become unsustainable to him.
I’m wondering if we can find better ways to voice all the fear and pain and brokenness and love and care and affirmation and say all the words that suicide letters and eulogies and epitaphs can never say.