January in Nebraska can be very hard. From a practical standpoint, it is cold, and bleak. The wind is relentless. Deeper than that, however, are the reasons that January is often difficult anywhere in the world. The hoopla of the holidays is over, but winter remains. Less light, more cold, and increased isolation influence our days.
A good friend, and school counselor, often reminds me that the good thing about life is that it’s always changing. As adults, we can find comfort in this certainty. Children, though, struggle to remember this fact. They and their underdeveloped frontal lobes are steadfast and certain that today’s tragedy will remain, unchanging, forever.
And so another young man, after grappling with this unwavering sorrow, has died by suicide. It was a student I hadn’t seen for several years. We were not exceptionally close, but not for a lack of trying on my part. He was resistant to my woo, independent and, he believed, fiercely capable. How he ended up in my reading tutoring program was a mystery to him – he felt it was an error. Jeff believed the data I had collected was terribly flawed.
His father traveled extensively, gone for weeks on end. His mother was quite ill, and so Jeff was left to his own devices. He did okay for the most part, though it was apparent he didn’t have the guidance he needed. Jeff came to school in some oddly matched outfits. With great conviction, he told wild tales of being in the rodeo as reason for his absences. Personality? This kid had it. Overconfident? Unapologetically so.
Jeff gave many of us a run for our money. Teachers use phrases like ‘squeaky wheel’ and ‘high flyer’ as metaphors for students who are going to leave their mark. Jeff was such a student. His independence and attitude actually made me fairly hopeful for him. Even though he was a couple of years behind as a reader, he appeared to be equipped with a set of skills that would take him far. His spirit and determination. His charm. His ability to spin a yarn.
Unfortunately, these talents were not enough to buoy him. Jeff’s impulsivity and lack of foresight got the better of him. What was temporary, he felt was permanent. He didn’t see options for himself, and couldn’t envision what hope next week might bring.
As a teacher, I take this tragedy personally. Yes, it was years ago that I knew Jeff. But still….what did I miss? What could I have done differently? What skills could I have given him that would’ve helped him to still be walking the Earth? I don’t know the answers to these questions. But the questions weigh on my heart. The grief will pass because life will get in the way of it. I can only know that Jeff is at peace, and continue to try to create deep and meaningful relationships with every kid in my path. Whether they want it or not.