The Empty Blue Desk

photo from Google images

Fall Semester 2009. Last year. He sat in the back row. In the only blue desk in a room filled with brown desks. He wore a button up shirt every day. He was quiet. Kept to himself. Initially, he was studious and handed in each assignment. His grammar was impeccable, his writing strong. He had a wry sense of humor and wrote about a time when he had worked in a Styrofoam factory. How the white stuff stuck to him, went up his nose, in his mouth, made him sneeze and sputter. He learned quickly he didn’t want to ever work in a Styrofoam factory. We all laughed when he read his piece aloud. Not at him: at his material. He was funny.

I expected great things. In fact, I was so sure he was going to produce great things, he kind of fell off my radar.

About six weeks into the semester, we hit the argumentative research paper unit, and he started to fall apart. He didn’t hand in his intentions for his topic, thus he never had a topic approved. I worried because he didn’t seem to be moving forward. While other students worked on paraphrasing and interview questions for their “experts,” he sat still in his blue chair, looking stiff and uncomfortable.

Finally, I asked him to stay after class. I went to his desk. I asked him if he had started the research paper. No. Did he have a topic? No. Did he need help selecting one, I implored. It was not too late. No. Could I help him? No. Would he let me know if I could help him? No. That was the one that stopped me. Chilled me, actually. No? I tried to look into his face, his eyes for something, but he was looking down, angry at being detained, at the questioning.

“You won’t contact me if you need help?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

I tried to explain to him that up until the research paper, he had an A — the only A grade in the class! He shrugged, underwhelmed. I told him he could still save his grade, the semester, but without the research paper, it would be impossible to pass, especially since he had not met any of the deadlines during the process. I told him I was worried about him.

“Thank you,” he said quietly. “I understand what I’m doing.”

The next day I received an email from Records and Registration that read:

We regret to inform you that we have been notified of the death of one of your current students (name here, and student number). We have noted this in the student information system so that all parties reviewing the student’s record will be informed.

Please make the appropriate notation in your records.

I was stunned. The appropriate notation? Was there a code I was supposed to put in my book? “D” for deceased? “S” for suicide? I knew I had to have been among the last to speak with my student. I replayed our conversation in my head endlessly. “I understand what I am doing” suddenly sounded much more ominous. I had missed it. I had missed a strong student’s decline from excellence into despair. Something was going on with him, and I had missed it. Maybe the better notation was “IF”: I. Failed. Or IF I had only known.

Later, I learned that my former student’s chosen method was to wrap his car around a telephone pole. He had been driving very fast. Very intentionally. He understood what he was doing.

Meanwhile, I was devastated. None of my students noticed the sudden absence of their classmate because students come and go all the time at community college. People drop out for many reasons: job or family obligations, financial issues, poor grades, poor attendance.  I spent the remaining weeks of the semester staring at that lone blue desk amidst the sea of brown desks and felt desperate.

I have had former students die – through illnesses, accidents, even at their own hand — just not during the semesters I taught them. Last year’s experience was a first for me. I have long known that I cannot transform them all into English teachers (nor would I want to), but I guess I always thought out of all their teachers, I would be the one they might come to if they needed help. I would be the one they would choose.

Last year, I learned that was a ridiculous idea, and that I cannot save them all.

44 responses to “The Empty Blue Desk

  1. I have tears in my eyes after reading this. You did all you could do. If someone does not want help, it is difficult to proceed.

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  2. Goodness, what an awful thing to experience. No training can prepare you for that. You are right of course that you can’t save them all but that won’t stop us trying.

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  3. Thank you for sharing this incredible story. Thank you for opening yourself up and allowing us to be touched by your experience.

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  4. Good morning Renee-Ann

    That is indeed a very sad experience. You can’t blame yourself however, for not seeing it coming. I certainly didn’t see where this was going as I read the chain of events… Straight A student, funny, made people laugh, then suddenly angry? We all have our bad days, but it doesn’t mean we’re contemplating suicide.

    You did all you could. You offered help.

    The other Renee-Ann
    http://www.reneeann.wordpress.com

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  5. This is a piece that should be everywhere. Thank you Renee and God bless!

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  6. Ah, teachers… It is just the way we are; we tend to feel responsible for most everything that happens while we are at it. In a way, it is destructive; we live when our students live; and die when they die. That is what makes us what we are, I suppose. We live for our students; and sometimes we forget that we have our own lives, our own problems.

    I had a student killed once in front of the school where I still currently work. He was also a player in the football team that I coached. I contemplated quitting coaching altogether, until one of the parents of another player pointed out, “Why? It was not your fault?”

    This is a poignant, deeply personal story, and I truly appreciated it. I detected a sense of guilt. It is not my business, but I would like to echo what was said to me all those years ago. It was not your fault.

    Sometimes, things just happen that we wish didn’t. As teachers, we somehow feel responsible. Took me a long time to really accept that the incident regarding my student was really not my fault. Hope you will do the same.

    Rex Raymond
    http://www.lifesomundane.net/

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    • I understand on the philosophical level that his death was not my fault. He had probably been making plans for a long time. Still, I can’t help but replay the events, the conversation. I still feel I missed something, but if there ever is a “next time” where I get a weird feeling about a student (or anyone), I’ll be better prepared. I have better tools in my tool-belt.

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  7. This experience would have chilled me.

    Did you ever find out why he made that decision?

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  8. Renee- I love you. For your honesty, for your compassion, for your empathy. You are a good egg. And no, you can’t save anyone, but I know for damn sure you’ll never stop trying. It takes courage to share a story like this. It makes you stop for a moment and think about the people in your own life, the people who are screaming out for help but never are heard. You did all that you could…

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  9. I understand. Once a promising young girl burned to death in a fire with all her brothers and sisters. Another time a young 11th grade fellow, who never spoke a word, murdered his step-father. Another had learned enough about credit card fraud by the 8th grade to manipulate the purchase of $35,000 cars and sell them for $10,000 cash. He wasn’t lying. He showed me that wad of hundred$. Another kid shot a small farm dairy cow in the head because the cow had disturbed him for weeks with its “moo, moo-mooing.” A former student girl got out from juvenile corrections (after 18 months served) for smashing her teacher in the back of the head with a forty pound fire-extinguisher. (I made sure she was my buddy ).

    But Richard went to Harvard and Rosaline became a teacher for the profoundly handicapped. Useless and disruptive Danny became a US Marine. All from the same inner city neighborhood. Something else, indeed, huh?

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  10. Oh, Renée…I have no words for this. I’m glad you realize that there’s nothing you could have done, and I’m sorry it happened. Thank you for sharing this experience with us!

    Wendy

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  11. The burden of “If” can be a heavy one. I know you will always carry part of it because it helps shape the person you are, but don’t try to carry it all. Just enough to remind you.
    Thank you for posting this and for letting us help carry the burden of “If,” so it won’t weigh you down too much.
    Steven

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    • Sparky:
      Thank you for your words. As I said, this was a hard one to write. I just saw a 60 MINUTES episode this weekend where a Platoon Leader in Afghanistan expressed the same kind of guilt each time one of his men dies. Obviously, I’m not in the trenches; nothing I do is a life or death situation, but it helped me to know that other people feel a similar kind of responsibility for human life. I worry sometimes that people don’t seem to care very much about each other, that we have really become strangers to each other. In the classroom, well . . . it’s about as intimate as strangers can get. And if I am lucky, I am allowed the privilege of reading my students’ most private thoughts. So when they let me in a crack, I am grateful. And when I miss something – like I did with my former student – well, like the platoon leader, I feel guilty. Despite what any counselor tells me, I will always feel I SHOULD have caught it.

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  12. Oh Miss Renee😦 I remember you speaking of this around the time it happened. I read what you wrote this morning, but had no time to comment. I was heading to work. This is such a sad story! I had three members commit suicide when I worked with the mentally ill, and I still wonder did I miss something?! I was close to all three. I left that job over 10 years ago and yet, like you, I still wonder. Great article, Renee!

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  13. You noticed. You tried. You persisted.
    It was up to him in the end.
    Very sad story.
    http://www.blackwatertown.wordpress.com

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  14. How heartbreaking. I’m so sorry – what an awful thing to experience. How sad that he never realized what a hole he would leave for everyone who connected with him.

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  15. Sometimes we pick up burdens that may not actually be ours to own. I think we do that so we can try to understand something a bit better, maybe see if there was something we personally need to learn about ourselves and others from a situation….then we can set that burden down and recognize that maybe it is not our job to carry it.

    I think you a grand human being, and I love you oodles!

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    • I know I’m not “in it.” I know that. I put down the handles of that suitcase, and I’m not dragging it around anymore. (That’s why I was finally able to write about this event, and put it out into the world.) But I still don’t have to like it, right? Thanks, Gin.

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  16. It’s a sad situation when you care about someone and they shut you out. It is also sad when the person just simply wastes their talents, and their life. You feel so helpless.

    However, you cared enough to try to help this individual and should be commended for your brave effort. As you know, many wouldn’t have done this, and others wouldn’t have even noticed this person.

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  17. Thank you so much for sharing this with all of us. My community of friends *lost* one of our own by his own hand and we will never be the same. He was a vibrant, energetic, personable force and is tragically missed. He left us all with so many questions and so many IFs. We who have experienced this kind of incomprehensible death journey on with different eyes and ears, as you have alluded to. We are hopefully tuned in on a deeper level when those around us are struggling. But we must remember that we are ultimately not responsible for their decisions. We must forgive ourselves and them and somehow let ourselves off the hook when we miss any possible signs there may have been. I am sorry for your loss.

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    • I just read your blog about JG. I am so sorry about your loss. I don’t see a way to contact you, to comfort you, to leave you a comment. I just wanted to tell you that your writing is beautiful: An amazing memorial to a person you loved.

      Thank you for visiting my blog and for your kind words.

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  18. This is so very sad, yet I am glad you shared. It is also very nice to hear that you care, that you noticed, and that you took the time to try to help, especially not knowing the true issue. It sounds like reaching out was all you could do and you took up the charge. I certainly hope that when my own children are in need (but don’t need or want Mom), that they will have someone in their lives that cares and notices as much as you.

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  19. Speechless. So sorry for your loss.

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  20. That’s a rough one. You did reach out though, but he may have been too far gone. People dealing with those kind of issues tend to be able to live double lives, there was no way of knowing what was going on behind his mask. I’m sorry you went through that.

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  21. If, if. if…
    It’s so hard. I work with teenagers in a youth club. I did a child protection course recently. One of the things we are taught to look out for is a sudden change in behaviour. A sudden change in sociability or attitudes to study. It’s easier said than done. I try and keep it in the back of my mind but teenagers and young adults are fairly changeable anyway. They may make a conscious effort to get in with the cool crowd or try and look like the cool loner. There are hormones, love affairs, there is so much going on. It isn’t easy to spot. Especially when you are trying to deal with 100 young people at a time. You get distracted by your own work and targets. You can’t always remember who they all are. In making an effort to get to know one shy kid you may lose touch with another kid for a short time.

    There are also the attention seekers to deal with. Often young people with problems just need someone to pay them some attention and make them feel wanted and interesting. They can take up a lot of your time and you are so engrossed in their issues that someone who is not as happy about coming forward will be missed.

    Ideally you would know all your students inside out, be aware of every change, every indicator that something is wrong; but you are only human. You can only remember so much about each person you teach and you only have so many hours in the day.

    Maybe the sudden refusal of an A grade student to work should have rung alarm bells, but there must have been other people who could have noticed too. It is not ALL down to you. It is the sort of thing that gets discussed in a staff meeting: “Has anyone else noticed Jonny behaving differently? His grades have plummeted. You have? Maybe we should talk to him and find out what is going on?” It’s quite uncommon that you see a young person and think I must take action NOW, TODAY. To throw social workers and psych nurses at someone on a “hunch” would be unwise, perhaps even intimidating. It might drive them further away if it is not done with sensitivity. You do what you can do and you tread carefully.

    Even if you had realised how very bad he was feeling you may not have done anything immediately. You might have said “Why don’t you come and see me for a private chat tomorrow?” Even if you had realised he was in such a dark place you could not have predicted what he planning to do or when. Suicide is not terribly common (thank goodness) so it is not unreasonable or a huge error of jugement to miss the signs that someone is about to kill themselves. You are not psychic. All you can do is be approachable and warm so that hopefully they feel able to ask for help before they get to the point where they can no longer cope.

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    • Oh Penny, how I WISH they were faculty meetings like that at the college level! We are very much isolated when it comes to these things and have to make a lot of effort to figure out who other professors are. We then have to email them and hope for a response as they are busy people, too — who, as you said, may or may not even know who I’m talking about. My classes are small, but some Professors hold large lectures where a struggling student would never be noticed.

      Our recommended procedure when concerned about a student’s behavior is to report to the Student Counseling Department. They take it from there. Since this incident, I have used this service, and they do respond quickly: pulling students out of classes to meet with them or even visiting students at their dorms on-campus.

      Thank you for understanding the complex world that swirls around me each day.

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  22. These are some great thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

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  23. Renee, my heart breaks for you…I think we’d all beat ourselves up for not “seeing it coming,” in spite of our best efforts to connect with our students. Even more so, think of the students who missed an opportunity to have someone touch their lives. It makes me wonder how many times I could have, as a student, offered a simple “hello” to someone sitting next to me, and whether that “hello” might’ve made a difference to them even though it meant nothing more than politeness to me.

    Maybe there’s a teachable moment in here that could help your students see, if only momentarily, that they have the power to make an impact on others.

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    • It’s so true. I wish they would reach to each other more. This is the biggest change I notice with this generation. Everyone is so plugged in to their own technology, they have become isolated. And that’s fine (maybe) for the people who are feeling good and have great self-esteem, but I don’t think they are seeing each other or making the same kinds of connections as I made 20 years ago in my college classroom – or more correctly in the halls before and after classes: those frenzied moments before a quiz, and I just needed someone to help reassure me that I knew my stuff. I met of my closest friends that way.

      Now everyone sits in the hallways texting. Or checking Facebook. Or playing video games. It’s kind of sad. And probably the topic of a future blog.

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  24. Renee: The thoughtfulness with which you crafted this piece is a tribute to this young man’s life. I can empathize with the weight you carry, whether it is fair or not for you to do so. Undoubtedly, there are many others who had a thread connecting them to this young man in some way that have a burden they shoulder similar to yours. I’m sorry for the loss of a promising young life, and I’m sorry that you and others had to be scarred by this loss.

    As a teacher, it has always frustrated me to hear others say, “You can’t save them all.” I understand the sentiment; I know these people are warning us that caring too much can be unhealthy and potentially counterproductive. But at the same time, if a teacher reaches the point where she doesn’t think that she can save them all, it’s time to move on. To believe in your heart that you can save them all is a necessary fallacy. Because there are people who truly believe that they can save them all, there are unknown numbers of young people who don’t take the final step that this young man took.

    Even though you couldn’t have helped this particular young man, Renee, it’s vitally important to our society that you believe you could have.

    Take care,

    Chase McFadden

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    • Chase,

      Thank you for your kind words of validation. I am back in the classroom this semester, and I definitely feel on heightened alert. I can’t help it. I know I said that I learned that I can’t save them all, but the reality is, I am still ready to try, especially if I see worrisome behavior.

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  25. What an inspiring story. I plan to become a teacher in the very near future (senior undergrad English education). Well, we are taught about all the different ways to teach and understand english and literature, but never introduced to the ethics and different backgrounds our students may come from. This really broadens my perspective of being prepared for anything and everything in the classroom. Thank you for sharing this with us & my condolences to the loss of your student.

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    • Dear Ania:
      I’m glad you found something to take with you as you go on your journey to become a teacher. It is difficult to be “prepared for anything” when there are so many things happening simultaneously; sometimes the quiet ones go unnoticed. As long as I work with people – inside or outside the classroom – I will have to stay vigilant and pay attention to their verbal and non-verbal cues. I am pretty sure this will haunt me forever.

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  26. What a powerful piece. I’ve had a couple tough situations myself. One student was murdered during our semester. I received that same email and reacted in the same way. I told the class so they could vent.

    I’ve also had some troubled students, even ones who have expressed intense things to me. It’s a fine line between picking up on something being wrong and feeling obligated to do something. You clearly weren’t in a position to do anything more than be there if this student would’ve decided to confide. There’s no way around the shock of such a loss though.

    As a good teacher, you feel the responsibility of your position, a weighty thing to be sure. Part of this job is about learning how to communicate and relate better while we teach the same general info to new faces year after year. You’ve experienced the toughest thing a teacher can face, but you’ve been given this experience for a reason. Now you are uniquely prepared to handle some situations in the future that others will not be equipped to bear. Keep doing what you’re doing. Thanks for sharing.

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    • Thanks “Fryber” Clay:
      Your words mean a lot to me, as I hope you know. It’s been wonderful meeting so many supportive educators online. Having taught in different environments (a small wealthy private school; a wealthy, public suburban setting; a poor, urban, public setting), I can tell you that making contact with counselors at the community college level has been the most frustrating. There aren’t regular meetings to discuss students about whom we might be concerned the way I’ve always experienced in the high school setting. I have found I have to work very hard to get people in student counseling to listen to me and act. It has always been my M.O. to try to intervene first, but if I feel something is beyond my scope, I have always had faith in the system in place. I feel very distanced from this system of online forms. Just yesterday, I called and spoke with someone who PROMISED she would get back to me later that same day. Over 24 hours later, I am still waiting. Hopefully, she’s dealing with students with emergent situations.

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  27. Pingback: A Letter To The Student Who Withdrew Himself « Lessons From Teachers and Twits

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