I don’t know the students seated in front of me. I have a class roster, a seating chart, but I haven’t memorized the names or affixed them to their faces. And today the faces aren’t just slippery—they’re strange. Some are red, puffy, mottled from blotting persistent tears with sleeves tugged over fists like mittens. Others ashen, bloodless, cast down into the desks. They are faces remade by grief, fear, and similar contagions. I lean back on the desk at the front of the class and try to speak. For a moment I’m voiceless, and grateful for it.
It’s September 24, 2015, a Thursday, a quarter to ten in the morning, the start of third period English with one of my two sections of seventh graders, a class of 23. This week, there are 22.
I left the overhead fluorescents off when we filed in, and the sun filtering through the trees and the old pull-down shades fills the classroom with a watery light. In this light, and in this quiet, it feels less like a quarter to ten and more like four in the afternoon. At that hour, when the school is emptied of children, I can sit motionless at my desk and listen to the rhythmic clanking of Doug, the custodian, as he works up the hall, or to the whisking of forgotten papers that the fans move about the floor.
Or maybe I just want it to be this way, a warm September afternoon, alone in a classroom suddenly big with stillness, no students. But it’s only third period, and most of the 22 seventh graders in front of me are softly crying. The lesson I’d planned—on distinguishing direct and indirect objects—won’t do. For inspiration, or just to procrastinate, I look to the low shelf behind my desk where I keep some of my own things, mostly books from the grad program I completed at the University of Edinburgh a month ago on a different continent, in a different timeline. I have The Best American Short Stories and a collected Cheever. A King James Bible and a translated Ramayana. Jameson’s Postmodernism. And plenty of “completes,” all poetry collections from the twentieth-century titans of my coursework in modernism: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Moore, Williams, Stevens, and Frost. In Scotland, I had lived with them and few other companions for more than a year. Now back home in Buffalo, I’ve lined them up behind me, a tenuous connection to the life I’d left, accumulating pastel layers of chalk dust.
I’m twenty-two years old. I don’t want to be here. I don’t have a teaching degree. I don’t have a certification. I don’t have any previous experience in a classroom, any experience working with kids. But I was broke when I left my grad program and this is a Catholic school, where teacher certification is not required. The school is making do with me, and I’m making it up as I go.
At least I have degrees in the subject I’m supposed to teach. I thought I could mine my memories of the best English classes I took, lift out lessons and approaches. But I discover the door to the past is closed. I can’t escape into the books I brought here, I can’t take anything out from them. My head is empty. And the raw, horrid rustling in the room is getting louder.
“If any of you still have questions, or something on your mind, that’s okay, just let me know,” I say, turning back to the class. “Or we can sit here quietly for a bit, put your head down—whatever you need.”
A few foreheads do hit desks. But some students sniffle, seeming to gather themselves. I realize that—like most of my performances in the classroom these past three weeks—I’ve spoken without at all considering what comes next.
One student raises his hand and starts to speak at the same time.
“Why him?” he asks. “He’s the nicest . . . why . . . of anyone? Why him?”
I don’t have an answer to this question. I don’t even know whether the child we’re discussing is “nice” or not (although that seems to be the consensus). I don’t really know anything about him at all. I have only the few details available from the other adults, puzzle pieces passed from hand to hand enough times that they’ve started to feel like truth.
They fit together like this. A family of five—a mother, father, and three boys—had just moved into a new house. It was a warm and windless September Sunday. The middle child—I’ll call him Charlie—was looking for help with his math homework. He discovered his mother on the top floor.
“There is no ‘why’ in . . . in situations like this,” I start to say. (I don’t really want to get into causation—I might get an earful from Miss Melody, the ex-nun who teaches religion.)
“My mom,” another begins, “said it was alcohol and cigarettes. She said that sometimes that—that can make you sad.”
“No—no,” I say. “I can assure you that’s not the case, and I would ask you not to speculate like that.”
I look up. I’m still learning how to speak to them. Questions can be hydras in middle-school classrooms, and I’m nervous about what new heads could emerge if I respond the wrong way.
“This may be, for some of you, the first time in your lives that you have a question and there isn’t any answer. And that’s okay. The older you get—”
“Why—” one of them chokes out, “why would somebody take the easy way? Why would somebody . . . do that?”
I feel my breath catch, mouth open. Tinier gasps pop all around the room. It’s an insensitive thing to say, but the kid who said it, at a desk in the middle of the row by the windows, is so twisted up with sadness that I know there isn’t any cruelty in it. Maybe a little secondhand anger. But mostly pain. He probably heard this, the stinging, repeatable phrase, from one of his parents and felt a wrenching need to square it with me, with his classmates, with everything he’s heard today. He needs to know if his parents are right. Because if his parents are still right about the world, then his parents are safe, and if his parents are safe, then he’s safe, too. I sink more heavily into the desk. Then something, like a hook at the base of my neck, pulls me up.
“Picture a burning building,” I say.
Three days earlier, at 7:30 in the morning, in the main office of St. Sebastian, the dynamics of public loss, public grieving, are already at work. But so, too, are the unique dynamics of schools—particularly private schools—more precisely, private Catholic schools—and specifically St. Sebastian, a private Catholic school in a comfortable, middle-class parish in the city, a place where family ties run deep and in every direction.
And I know this better than most. I was a student here for nine years. And nine years after leaving, I’m back.
I take the pen, attached with masking tape and a chain to a clipboard on the wall outside the nurse’s office, and note the time of my arrival. I have five minutes to get to my homeroom before the proctors release the early drop-offs from the cafeteria. Then 30 minutes of unmitigated chaos until the first bell for morning announcements, a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance.
It is only my fourth week back in the United States after more than a year away, and already I’ve learned to start the day exhausted and to improvise the whole way to the final bell. I’ve also learned mechanisms to accommodate my habitual lateness and lack of preparation, which include avoiding main office small talk, avoiding hallway small talk, and eating lunch alone in my classroom instead of in the teachers’ lounge. But today I won’t be able to escape the sign-in sheet in silence.
“It’s unbelievable,” Ella the secretary says, shuffling papers from her desk by the door.
Molly, another assistant, makes a low noise in agreement. “Those poor boys,” she says.
Liv and Susie, my middle school counterparts in math and science, lean in the doorway to the nurse’s office.
“They just moved into that new house,” Liv says. “They’re all in a hotel now. Her parents are paying for it.”
These three intimate details don’t add up to anything. The selection even verges on gauche. And I can’t guess where Liv might have learned who was paying for the family’s hotel. But this is what we do, to participate in loss. We collect, contribute, repeat.
Liv looks at her shoes and we all go hmm.
“It’s terrible,” Ella says, “to think he found her. I can’t imagine.”
“Looking for help on his homework,” Susie adds.
I note the hiccup from the script—it was math homework, some part of me silently corrects. Then I realize why Susie self-edited: Liv is Charlie’s math teacher. In the illogic of our collective processing, every one of us has entertained the thought—horrible, plain wrong as it is—that if Liv hadn’t assigned the homework, Charlie wouldn’t have discovered his mother’s suicide. We’ve insisted on repeating the detail even as it implicates her and try to hide it now, like a chocolate on the tongue, a matter of talking around it.
When Taylor walks in, we all look up and Susie breaks from her spot in the doorway to embrace her. Six inches taller and twenty years younger, Taylor flops over Susie’s shoulder, and her bag flaps against her back. Taylor is a fifth-grade teacher, and the youngest of the brothers is in her homeroom.
“It’s unbelievable,” Susie says.
“Those poor boys,” Taylor says.
Soon we’ll wear the phrase meaningless. But what else is there to say?
Noise from the cafeteria beats like an ocean in the stairwell outside. I have maybe a minute left. I don’t want to find a line of students waiting at the door to my classroom. I don’t want to see the questions in their faces. I need a minute alone, behind my own desk. I’ll have less than 30 seconds.
I turn sideways to shoulder out of the packed space. Susie and Taylor release their embrace. But I’m the only one who hasn’t contributed anything to this tide pool of mourning, and I feel that all eyes are now on me. To leave, I have to make some kind of offering.
I turn in the doorway but avoid eye contact while looking around in a general way, shaking my head.
“Those . . . boys,” I say.
Everyone hums in agreement.
“If you kill yourself,” a twelve-year-old asks, “do you still go to heaven?”
The priest actually groans.
It’s nine o’clock on Thursday, September 24, and Father Dominic has called a meeting of the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades in the cafeteria to discuss the community’s loss. A semi-basement space, the windows at grade along one side of the room fail to cast any daylight on us; at least nothing like daylight is perceptible under the slimy whitewash of the overhead fluorescents. Behind me, shielded by a retractable metal screen, the cafeteria workers prep for the first lunch, which is at 10:30, an ungodly time for fish sticks. Kevin, the tall and taciturn music teacher, emerges from his classroom off the cafeteria; he takes in the scene and quickly retreats. Before me, almost every chair is taken: five rows of tables in four columns, six to a table, backpacks tucked below, hands clasped in laps or drumming inaudibly on the drab gray plastic, boys slouching and sullenly saddle-sitting, girls with knees and ankles crossed, some short enough to tap heels against seat bottoms, a nervous fugue-march.
I hadn’t planned on missing a prep today—and now I’m only half paying attention, thinking through a new lesson for next period—but I know we needed an intervention. For going on four days, a malaise has infected the building. It’s like living under a cloud of volcanic ash. We teach our lessons as if nothing is amiss, but the air is thick, the light a sooty yellow, and the students seem distracted by questions they don’t know how to ask. Meanwhile, two seats remain empty.
Already I’ve lost all hope in the assembly. The faculty didn’t receive any playbook for this; we didn’t know anything other than the time to bring our classes down here, and now it’s apparent that the administration’s response amounts to our gregarious, gadabout pastor hosting an extemporaneous Q&A on suicide with the middle school.
At first, I’m shocked at his responses. Shock fades to muted horror as the session continues.
“Who found . . . Charlie’s mom?” one of the seventh graders, a sly one, asks. Obviously out-of-bounds, I think.
But no: Father Dom sighs, gears spinning loose in his head, teeth failing to catch. “Your friend Charlie found her,” he says.
He continues to pace the tables, fingers tenting in front of his belly, in his dress blacks and clerical collar, as the atmosphere deteriorates around him, students fidgeting, faculty grinding teeth and triggering migraines. I hear sniffles and then—so close it could have been in my own throat—a single, animal sob.
But now, the Big One, from a sixth grader—suicide and salvation—a question that can’t go unanswered and, worse, can’t be unasked.
If you kill yourself, do you still go to heaven?
Father Dom pauses in between the rows of low tables, some hundred and twenty young faces turned up to him. He takes his black glasses off and rubs the paunches of his face, from the cheekbones up to the salty temples, over the forehead, and down to pinch the bridge of his nose.
No priest has ever appeared “Christlike” to me until now. In this moment I see only Father Dom’s frailty. He might even be praying now—something like let this cup pass.
But, like Christ at Gethsemane, Dom knows this particular plea will go unanswered.
“Jesus—” he starts to say. “Jesus can forgive every one of us.”
Something sags across the room, a sudden breathlessness. The students, seeking unequivocal assurance, will remember only one thing from this: Father Dominic’s flat, terrible “can.”
I realize I’m clenching my jaw, my fists; my neck is hot. As an open atheist, the answer shouldn’t have mattered to me—but I wish he would have said, simply, “yes.”
Hell is February in Buffalo. The holidays spent, another disappointing football season ended, and a hockey season already souring. Sidewalks and driveways glazed from 12 weeks of snowing, stomping, melting, icing, salting, sleeting, refreezing.
As the car pulls out of the driveway and onto Hertel Avenue I repeat, silently, a mantra.
I will not scream at a child today.
I will not scream at a child today.
I would say this out loud if not for my father, who sits beside me at the wheel.
We have a routine. I’ve been back in Buffalo only five months and have managed little in the way of savings. I’ve started to pay off debt and don’t yet have a car or an apartment. My dad, who works at the university on Main Street, passes close by St. Sebastian on his way to the office, so he offered to drop me off. I’m sure he doesn’t need to be in as early as I do, but he’s the “lonely offices” sort of father, infinitely pliable and quiet about it.
We had a similar routine nine years ago. Now, instead of in front of the school, he drops me off at the corner of Summit and Dale, so that I don’t emerge among the students. But like them, I carry a packed lunch. I wear a satchel bag over one shoulder.
Like the preteens I’m teaching, I feel arrested between adolescence and adulthood. They’re supposed to feel this way. I’m supposed to feel like a finished human being. But something went wrong, and I can’t figure out exactly where.
I’m living in my parents’ house, riding in my father’s car, working at a school I’d left as a student fewer than ten years before; I have no plans, no savings, no prospects for another job.
And my days involve six hours of droning, cajoling, and occasionally screaming at children who are even more sadistic, indifferent, and tech-addicted than I was at their age.
I’ve never succeeded at one thing that I actually set out to do.
Refocus. Reframe. Repeat.
I will not scream at a child today.
I will not scream at a child today.
Already I see my best intentions evaporating. In all likelihood I will scream at a child today.
This is a sickening realization to have in your father’s car at 7:30 a.m. on a Tuesday in February in Buffalo, New York.
As the car pulls up to the corner, a knobby, icy stretch past the church to the steps of the school, an echo of my own words unexpectedly comes back to me. I chose this, I tell myself. Whatever this is, I chose it.
I’ll think of those words again an hour later when I slam the door to my classroom with a solid wooden boom that I know echoes all the way down to the fourth grades. I said I wouldn’t. But I am.
“MARK!” I’m shouting, “DROP IT!”
Choice is a funny idea. We so often find ourselves doing the opposite of what we intended. Sometimes we act without “intending” anything at all. And some would go further, arguing that we never exercise “choice,” not in our words, not in our thoughts, not in our careers or relationships.
But through five thousand years of recorded human history, the concept has stuck around.
I chose this. Whatever this is, I chose it.
I thought of those words in the despairing moments of my abbreviated teaching career. I’ve thought of them many times since.
Even if I don’t always believe them, they bring me back to the year I taught middle school and to the first really memorable lesson I ever delivered. For a luminous moment, I was the conduit for the stickiest and most mysterious of five-thousand-year-old ideas.
I try for a soft, inviting tone: “Picture a burning building,” I say.
Three weeks into the job, I’m finally putting my recent degree to some use. I’m about to borrow from one of my dissertation subjects, David Foster Wallace, although I’m not going to cite my source. Wallace can speak better than I can to the experience of contemplating suicide. But I don’t want to explain why. I’ll plagiarize.
“Picture a tall burning building. You’re inside, on the highest floor. The flames are getting closer, and a window is at your back. The glass is cool. To stay is to die. To jump is to die. Would the fact of the flames in the room make you any less afraid of leaping from the window?”
I wait a beat.
I feel something like flames licking up from my own collarbone. I’m green and untrained, but even I should have thought twice before embarking on this explanation. I scan the room, trying to calculate the odds of each student reporting home tonight that Mr. Ryan said suicide is okay.
“No,” one of the students says.
A pulse of cool gratitude.
“That’s right,” I say, trying to slip a little smile into my voice, without actually smiling. “Sometimes there isn’t any ‘easy way.’ And who are we to look at someone else’s life and . . . you know . . . We don’t know and it’s not our place to say.”
The clock shows ten after ten. I feel a little better. I think I landed the question fine, after a bumpy descent, but I can feel something unfinished, the arc of something left to say. It’s not enough to get them to the next bell without a breakdown. I feel a responsibility to undo some of the damage from this morning’s assembly.
DFW didn’t quite work. I think I need, as Wallace once suggested, something to answer the pain and fear these students are feeling with reverence and conviction.
Who else has something to say on suicide?
My mind’s eye drops to the collected Robert Frost.
And I’m not thinking of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” They’ll get that in high school (and maybe hate it, like A. J. Soprano). The poem that I remember now is “The Trial by Existence,” a curious sermon from Frost’s first collection, A Boy’s Will.
“I want to read you something,” I say. “I won’t test you on it and you can even forget it after today, but . . . I thought we could read some of it together right now.”
I open to the page in my collected Frost at the same time I’m googling the poem to put up on the Smart Board.
This is stupid, I think, scanning the first page. I’m stupid.
The poem is long, nearly three pages of soporific iambs. The language might have been plain in 1913, but now much of it seems dated (in the first stanza I spot “asphodel fore’er”) and definitely out of reach for seventh graders. Even worse, it’s incandescently heretical.
But time is running out.
“I’m only going to read a bit,” I say, returning to the front of the desk and leaning back against it, the poem open in my hands and bright on the screen behind me. “The poem is about heaven. It imagines that angels in heaven are re-incarnated—that means born again as humans. And the important thing is, the angels can choose whether to do it, to be reborn or to stay in heaven.”
And from a cliff-top is proclaimed
The gathering of the souls for birth,
The trial by existence named,
The obscuration upon earth.
Here I skip ahead and slow, spinning each syllable like a top:
And none are taken but who will,
Having first heard the life read out
That opens earthward, good and ill,
Beyond the shadow of a doubt;
I stop and look up. Half the faces are still downturned, but I don’t think I’ve lost anyone entirely.
“Say you’re an angel,” I announce. “Why might you want to go back to earth?”
A timid hand, a boy from the back row. I nod. “Because . . . it’s fun,” he says, with a grin tucked into his chin.
“Good, that’s right. Why might you not want to go back?”
“Because life sucks,” says Mellody.
“Sure,” I say, grateful, for the first time, for one of her performative outbursts. “You’re right.” A few pairs of eyes open wider at this admission. “In this poem,” I say, “the angels think life on earth is something to celebrate—it’s an adventure—but it also means pain. And that’s why they get to choose. Imagine seeing, at once, all the joy and all the pain that will be packed into a life—your life. It’s not an easy choice. I’ll read just a bit more,” I say, looking down again.
But always God speaks at the end:
‘One thought in agony of strife
The bravest would have by for friend,
The memory that he chose the life;
But the pure fate to which you go
Admits no memory of choice,
Or the woe were not earthly woe
To which you give the assenting voice.’
A hand is in the air as soon as I lift my face from the book. Mellody again.
“You don’t remember,” she says. “You don’t remember you’re an angel.”
Sure, I nod. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but she’s right. Frost assumes, in the poem, that we don’t remember our heavenly nature—that we can’t.
The students around Mellody are looking at her now. They want her to keep going. So do I.
“You don’t remember . . .”
She blinks, wrinkles her nose.
“That . . .”
“You chose,” she says.
The red hand is racing around the clock face. All the clocks in the school are off, or maybe the bell’s off. I don’t know, but it’ll ring any moment now. I keep reading.
And so the choice must be again,
But the last choice is still the same;
“What does that mean? God’s asking, Are you sure? You know every—” I almost say shitty. “Every terrible thing that’s going to happen to you in life, but you’ll have no memory of choosing the challenge. Do you still choose it? Do you?” I ask, turning the question on all of them. “In the poem, the angel says Yes.”
And the awe passes wonder then,
And a hush falls for all acclaim.
And God has taken a flower of gold
And broken it, and used therefrom . . .
(Should have skipped this bit, I think—but the end is good, the end is the best part—)
The mystic link to bind and hold
Spirit to matter till death come.
’Tis of the essence of life here,
Though we choose greatly, still to lack
The lasting memory at all clear,
That life has for us on the wrack
Nothing but what we somehow chose;
Thus are we wholly stripped of pride
In the pain that has but one close,
Bearing it crushed and mystified.
The bell has rung. I spoke over it and didn’t notice, but I register it now. A rush and rustle rise from the stairwell outside the classroom door. The first locker bangs open in the hall. My students remain in their seats.
I don’t know if anyone besides Mellody really understood the premise of the poem, if they could picture what I found so beautiful and heartening, the image of angels swan-diving from heaven to freely take on earthly ignorance and pain.
I don’t believe any of this, of course, not literally, the way they’ll take it, but I believed that through it I might reach them. I can’t be certain if I did. Now I can only believe that I did the best that I could.
I stand up from the desk. They wait for a final word. I don’t know it now, but this is the last time a class will ever ignore the bell for me.
“Forget the poem, but remember this,” I say. “Whatever happens in your life, whatever hurts, or . . . whatever sucks, something in you chose this.”
I pass back beneath the blue beam of the projector, blocking out the poem. I’m doubting the words even as I’m shaping them, doubting them so much they almost don’t come out.
“You can’t remember it, you never can prove it, but something in you believed you would get through,” I say.
It’s a nice thought. Maybe a nice thought is enough, I think. Enough for them, enough for today.
I look to the door, where an eighth grader’s face appears and disappears just as quickly.
“You can go now.”
I turn around to cap the projector, darkening the room by a few more degrees. As the students start to rise, one—the boy who’d asked about the “easy way”—shoots a hand up and starts to speak.
“Is it true?” he says.
The students around him stop, or downshift into slow motion. Mellody pauses with her hand on the doorknob, now a mob of faces behind her on the other side of the glass.