It’s 2 a.m. and I can’t sleep. I’ve been thinking of a former student, Alex. Head bent over his desk, never making eye contact, rarely saying a word in class, he would turn in flawlessly written essays that blew the rest of the class’s work away. To me, the way he folded himself down inside his body, and tried to fade into the background was a sign of severe social anxiety. I thought of various medications and wondered if something could free this handsome, brilliant young man from whatever prison he was in.
Partway into the year, in a journal entry, Alex mentioned losing his mom to cancer. I thought it had happened long before, and I jotted in the margin that I, too, had lost my mom and still struggled with it if he ever wanted to talk. I didn’t know the wound was raw and fresh. His counselor had never told his teachers about the loss, just a few short months before.
If I had known how fresh his pain was, would I have done a better job reaching out? In my imagination, I take Alex under my wing, mentor him, and help him break down the walls he had built up around himself. In my imagination, I go on to see him with a cute but shy girlfriend and a small circle of friends, slowly coming out of his shell. But that’s not reality.
In those early years of teaching, some of my male students accused me of being a man hater. They thought I favored the female students who would gather in my classroom for lunch and eagerly soak up my fashion sense and advice about life. I was never a man hater, but as a teacher in my mid-twenties, I was concerned with propriety and my reputation in dealing with male high school students. I think I kept them at arm’s length.
So, instead of saving Alex, I praised his flawless essays, tried to encourage him, and sent him on his way at the end of the year. I followed his progress from afar, calling out to him as I saw him walking down the hallway, always alone. I defended him when his 12th grade English teacher came into the lounge griping, “This Alex So and So is the surliest boy I’ve ever met! He sits and glowers at me all day.” I told my colleague that that the glowering wasn’t for the teacher, but was for Alex himself. Even in my defense of Alex, I was off-base. What I took as poor social skills and teenage self-loathing was really grief, a grief that was killing him.
I think of a home without a mother. Alex’s siblings loved their mom just as much as he did, but they somehow managed to cope. I don’t know whether a more sensitive school counselor would have made a difference, or whether if he had sat in class crying rather than scowling he would have gotten more help.
I know that his father tried. His family continued to stay involved in church and Alex accepted Jesus. His father tried to get Alex involved in soccer, but the joking, crass language, and lack of sportsmanship rubbed Alex the wrong way. It didn’t fit into the structured way Alex thought the world should be. Alex’s dad tried. But a father is not a mother, and a mother is what Alex needed most.
I didn’t see Alex much his final two years in high school When he was accepted to one of the most prestigious schools in the country, I thought that would be his time to blossom. The next time I heard his name, however, what when I found out he had killed himself. I still don’t know how he did it, and I’ve never asked. That is not an image I want in my mind.
I pulled up outside his house to talk to his dad, my two toddlers strapped in their car seats, chattering away. He thanked me for looking out for his son, and I felt worse than ever. We talked about a brilliant boy who felt too deeply. Who silently held people to a certain standard that they couldn’t live up to. Who felt let down by life.
I know I would be a different teacher if I went back today. I would be more willing to reach out and get involved in the messiness of kids’ lives. I hope my kids encounter adults who are willing to reach out to them and care about them.
I think about my own son and I see a quiet boy who takes life very, very seriously. A friend of mine today called him an “old soul.” I see high test scores and good grades and I think-- “brilliant.” Now brilliant is good, but I wonder how one breeds resilience. For surely life is hard, and I can’t protect my kids from hardship. I can just pray they will be resilient enough to keep going in the face of it.
Every few months a guest orchestra plays at our church. The violin player looks just like Alex. I stare at him and imagine he’s still alive, making beautiful music. I imagine he is an overcomer.