The signs are not always there and every suicide is not an act of desperation.
I tried to turn off my own switch when I was sixteen and was truly surprised when I woke up a day later in the ICU with a ventilator down my throat and a nurse talking to me. Surprised because I really did think it would be like a light switch. I recall feeling I'd found an easy, risk-free (undoubtedly heartless) escape route and reasoning with myself that I'd no longer exist; therefore I wouldn't have to face any consequences. It felt like a smart, logical plan and the decision was a spontaneous, easy in-the-moment one for my teenage brain to make.
I imagined just blackness, but had no proof that nothingness really was all that would follow. It was an effort to cheat, I thought, at a game I hadn't even asked to play. All I had to rely on was my imagination and a Catholic upbringing that wasn't sticking anymore. I wasn't deeply distraught in my day-to-day living about any one thing, as much as I was kind of upset about some things, embarrassed about others, and mostly just bored and disgusted with being me. I didn't see anything that made me want to keep on making the effort year in and year out.
Am I describing the thinking of this young woman clearly enough? It's important at this moment in time when our children may seem well adjusted but our nation and the world beyond, do not. In the home of a dear friend and her loving, welcoming family, I spontaneously, unilaterally and without outside counsel or input, chose my own relief and escape. My real pain came decades later remembering all of this as a mother myself, and in receiving grace again from that friend for the mess I made for her & her family to pick their way through. The aftermath of my casual suicide attempt.
Others suffered in part because they didn't and couldn't see it coming. I stumbled suddenly on the idea, in an hour of dark thought, that dying could be an upside-down, ultimate life-hack--getting out of the work of it by slipping away into the black. I didn't love the world but I didn't hate it, either. It was this: the world and I could take or leave each other, either way.
This is why I have long engaged my own children so deeply in conversation and why I articulate in laborious detail what is happening around us and in our family. We talk and listen to each other long and with great effort about why we yelled last night, how it feels from each of our perspectives to be in this family, how I struggle with reaching for red wine when I'm worried about something or why we still miss someone who has died. We talk about terrible adult behavior and the invisible rules with peers in schools, how to advocate for ourselves and others, about sex, and the etymological roots of the "f" and "c" words. We talk about the 2016 presidential election and how it feels personally to each of us. We talk about engaging with the world with as much emotion and confidence as the way we engage with each other.
So, despite my supremely self-centered act--in my hour of adolescent disconnection--I still went on and received the privilege of a whole life. There were no signs to those around me. My resilient, sacrificing mother did an incredible job raising three children and I was loved by family and friends as my own children are loved. I attributed my actions my senior year in high school to this: that girl did not recognize her value or what she could possibly contribute. She was not engaged in adult ideas or in the wider world. That young, impulsive me tried to sneak out the back because I thought I wouldn't be missed very much, for very long and that the world would not have a lasting hole in it when I left. That frightens the forty-five year old mother I am now, to my bones. I engage my children to encourage them to interact with ideas and to tether themselves to the world, so that on those days that they may find themselves deciding whether to stay or go, they will at the very least know the world would be lessened and impacted beyond even the sorrow and loss to our family and friends.
We watch for the signs, of course. But also and just in case: let's interact with our children and teens around world and local experiences, as soon as possible. Let's acknowledge that they are listening to our opinions and beliefs and will need to determine their own. Frighteningly, my two may someday debate whether to stay or go--perhaps they already have--but if they do they will know how empty a place they would leave behind when the private, terrible hour and chance to "turn off their switch" appears. It is harder to leave the world when you value your own mind and it's ideas--and you already know that you have shaped it as a person of thought and action.
My fears haven't gone away. But engaging our children so they might know their own power, helps.
As school starts, let's talk about a plan for our spontaneous anger. In case you are sure this won't come up...COME ON. You are going to be outraged this year, at least once. I will. (Ok, I already have been, but I'm a high achiever.) One of my kids will come home with a story about a teacher, administrator or policy that will appear so outrageously wrong that a small volcano will erupt in my chest and make the top of my head tingle. You might be serving in one or more roles when it happens--as a teacher, principal, parent, student, staff or board member--and it might be directed at someone else from this list. Or your dormant volcano may start rumbling over a policy or procedure that seemed to be created out of willful ignorance, or worse, disregard for kids. There may even be the distinct scent of your own self-righteousness in the smokey air. Been there, done that.
STOP HERE RIGHT NOW AND GET EXCITED. You have a plan for this. It's taped on the side of your fridge. You can't go wrong if you follow it. And if, also like me, this plan prevents you from making an a-double-s of yourself, burning bridges, embarrassing your children, or losing a golden opportunity to improve something for kids or adults in your school, why not give it a whirl when lava is threatening your peaceful world? Here it is in ten steps. It would be five, but we are really mad right now:
It's been a summer of astounding growth for both my garden and my kids. The squash and tomatoes, and our son and daughter, have grown beyond my expectations. I feel more pride in their transformations than a humble person ought to. For our girl, it is the overwhelming desire to make visual art that calls to her until it is released. For our boy, it is a stream of music that overflows out of him and through his instruments.
Here's how the squash & tomatoes did it: it was, of course, programmed into the seed that the plant should flower and come to fruition. They also had the good fortune to be planted in decent soil under the California sun and (with equally big luck) near a hose in the middle of a drought.
Here's how the kids did it: they responded to their constant, nagging itch to make things out of thin air for no understandable reason. And then they followed through, repeatedly producing art and music in a variety of forms. As for soil, sun and water, our kids had the family, teachers and organizations that provided time, safe space, high quality instruction and the right tools to make what was demanding to be made. Even in the middle of an arts programming drought.
As school opens again, whether we have kids in them or not, let's create something new because we want more of what we love. Let's plant and nurture art programs as professionals and business owners and as universally creative humans. No matter who we are voting for in November and despite whatever is most pressing. As the kids in our towns start fresh again, let's decide how we will support our art, music, writing, coding, gardening, theater, design and all creative programs in our schools--and even initiate programs where they don't yet exist. Let's donate money if we can, and we probably can. But that's not where our power ends. We have equally great ways to contribute if we start with the things we love to do well.
A phone call to a teacher or principal who is receptive to the community or has a pet project might be just the way to start. Gardeners may help plant a garden or build raised beds. Musicians can greatly free up a music teacher's time for more instruction by assisting with instrument repair. Technical writers are needed to seek out grants and write them on behalf of their schools and impassioned speakers may address the school board on behalf of underfunded programming. Businesses and professionals can offer short-term internships, display student work, and offer to teach students how to start their own businesses, online stores or how to code. Yoga teachers can do a weekly lunch class with a willing p.e. teacher present. We can create more of what we love by serving students with our own gifts and knowledge.
In doing something despite feeling constrained by time or money, we can use what we love to nurture creative programs that will transform and grow our local students in areas that excite us as well. If we invest in our schools with what we have to give, we'll harvest the gifts of thriving, resilient adults we'll want to have around. Like our own creations, their art will feed the rest of us a hundredfold.
You are dreading returning to the classroom next month.
That's it, there isn't a punchline there. If your chest aches and especially if you get a flash of irritation, or hopelessness, or just classic indigestion when you think about seeing students again...you might be done with the classroom.
But there are bills, and that so-close-and-yet-so-far retirement package, and...oh, well, just money and stability in general. And it's not as if you don't like kids anymore. You just don't know how long you can keep a room of them together, moving forward to the satisfaction of parents, administration and general public scrutiny. (At least not and still sustain normal daily serotonin levels.)
You might be a burned out teacher if you hear yourself saying "kids these days," "they don't have any respect anymore," or "it's the parents now, who think their kids can do no wrong." If you don't return emails to parents, or you can't handle the sound of your colleagues' voices or the sight of your principal's name in your inbox, you might be a burn out.
But what do you do if maybe you used to love the job and it's all you've done? If the system changed under your feet (it did, you aren't crazy), if too much on the American teacher's plate keeps you and your colleagues feeling like it's a losing game?
Many teachers want to leave but they just don't have the confidence that they could be happy and successful on the "outside." When I left the classroom I hadn't created a resume or job hunted in years. I didn't know who I could be on the outside of the school system or if I had the right kind of lungs to breathe and sustain myself in that rarified air.
This is the truth: the world needs you out there, to create your business. The one you think about all of the time, that would solve that problem that maddens you because it is so easy to fix. There are positions for educators in businesses, non-profits and philanthropy that need you for your experience as an educator, not despite it.
If it makes you sad to think of "having to keep teaching," that may be rock bottom beneath your feet. This is a great place to be. From rock bottom, you have the leverage and angle to push the hardest to propel up, up, up to the light and the air that you are craving. Craving light and air are also great things. A tolerable life of routine and apathy is just not as good as rock bottom, where you know that immobility just won't work anymore--and you finally choose to make your own momentum.
If your work does not energize you, even though it once did, you might be a teacher who deserves to look up again at the horizon. Try looking inside of yourself and being still. Meditation, prayer or just silence all work. Describe to yourself what your bliss is now, as you are now, after all of those years of investing and nurturing the students that knew you believed in them. And start to believe in yourself. You might be a burned out teacher if your heart feels lighter, warmer, hopeful at the thought.
The Pokemon Go thing has finally captured my attention. First I thought everyone had just seen an adorable or rabid bunny rushing past or hiding in a corner. Then I figured it was a Snapchat thing. A 19 year-old eventually explained that yes, everyone but I was in the loop and that I needed to pay closer attention.
The cheerful, chatty phlebotomist I met today also snuck four vials of blood out of my arm by distracting me with nonstop Pokemon talk. But he wasn’t interested in capturing the thingamajigs on his phone—yet. He was intrigued by how our local businesses are responding. On the one hand, some are drawing a line and putting their proprietary foot down with signs warning customers not to play inside of their stores. Others are welcoming customers at hosted periods of time to come into their stores and play at no charge. It’s the difference between doing something about it and doing something with it.
It will be intriguing to see how schools respond. I imagine that, as is often the case, some teachers and leaders will decide to do something restrictive about the popularity of this new thing, while others will do something with it while it’s still hot.
Businesses catching the Pokemon wave are instinctively building their brand and nurturing their culture by opening their minds/eyes/doors in this moment to see what is present for their customers. Businesses and schools which align themselves with the deep play in which their customers and students are engaged, build the kind of trust that creates sustainable partnerships. They look at their clients, their customers and their students and say “I see you.” And they don’t miss the moment.
In the coming months, some of the most intuitive teachers we know will be subtly embedding the current collective experience of Pokemon Go in their classrooms, on field trips and in examples and metaphors during instruction.
Our most effective teachers have always used what we love and care about to draw us into new learning. They invite us to play with ideas, theories, theorems and content by setting the stage, preparing the environment, using clay, crayons, music, iPads, school gardens, cooking, baseball-related word problems or Pokemon. It’s what some teachers have always done. They are the ones who open themselves up to meet their students where they are. They set the stage for our curiosity and excitement so that they might capture our imaginations where we are already deeply engaged in play.