The other day, my 8th grader got into the car after school, chipper as always. We started the usual pleasantries: how was school, what did you eat for lunch, any tests coming up? We carry on for about 5 minutes until he says, “Someone at school tried to kill himself today.”
I didn’t say anything at first because my immediate instinct was he was kidding. He said it so nonchalantly and he has a tendency to say crazy shit to garner a reaction; he is a teenager after all. Instead of the “just kidding,” I was waiting for, he continued with the story.
“I didn’t see it myself,” he started. “Mr. Charles* told us all about it because we were in his class in the period right after it happened.”
I sat, silently, already holding back a lump growing in my throat. A coating of goosebumps covered my arms and neck.
“You know the 4-story atrium that overlooks the first floor? Well Mr. Charles was teaching in one of the classrooms around the atrium and the kids in the class noticed this 9th grader had stepped over the railing and was standing on the other side on the 4th floor looking down, one leg dangling and only hanging on with one arm. Mr. Charles ran to the student and pleaded with him to put his leg back over. He persuaded the boy slowly, asking him to spare the entire classroom of kids who were watching and worrying about him. Eventually he persuaded him to kick his leg back over and Mr. Charles grabbed the boy by the shoulders and pulled him to safety. They had to call the police and his parents obviously. The headmaster will send a letter later.”
By the time he reached the end of the story, I had tears streaming beyond my sunglasses. I was caught so off-guard and with my tendency towards both cursing or saying all the wrong things, I just sat there in silence, quietly trying stifle my sniffles.
“Do you know what it was about?” I ask and instantly realize how contrite it sounds. My son said the rumor was it was academic pressures that drove the 9th grader over the railing.
I feel so fucking sad for everyone touched by this abysmal moment. I picture the sun-filled atrium, always bustling with the hum of brilliant middle-schoolers and high schoolers. Huddled around each other’s ipads, giggling and gossiping in the bright light. These are very privileged children, at one of the finest private schools in the world, but there are hidden demons here that don’t discriminate based on educational or economical social caliber.
My beautiful, healthy son, continues to talk about the protocol of the day. I want to unbuckle my seat belt, climb into the backseat, and hug him so tightly so he can feel safe and protected. (Or at least so I can.) I want him to stop acting so strong, even though he is already so much bigger than me. I can tell he is holding it all inside his gut; his energy is tense and my tears are coming without consciousness.
My grounded, pragmatic adolescent thinks he is old enough to understand it all, but he’s still in shock. None of us can understand what it’s like to live in someone else’s shoes, through someone else’s eyes. Life is so fragile, so mysterious, and so volatile. One day he’ll be in college, get wasted with some buddies and start bawling right when that booze enters his blood, and he remembers that some kid he went to high school with almost jumped to his death because his school work got to him.
Later in the evening, as promised, the headmaster sent a perfectly-composed letter. This institution sends out meticulous correspondence I’m convinced are crafted by white house speech writers. In the letter, we’re asked to respect the family’s privacy and reminded of all of the layers of support services offered at the school along with psychologist services. Discussions would continue; shrinks at all levels were on deck ready for conversations.
There’s a Russian phrase I constantly heard when I was a “good-girl, quiet teenager.” Roughly translated, it means, “in the quiet, snakes lurk.” Like any tragedy that enters the periphery of your life, it forces you to hold up a mirror to your life. I think of my “good, quiet boy” and pray to my just-in-case God that he would muster the strength to ask for help. I hope he wouldn’t be too prideful or too stubborn to tell us if he was aching so badly.
As a new mom, I recall fretting about the new mom things, is he getting enough ounces, adequate tummy time, should I start music class already? My father thought all of this was so silly as I took it all too seriously. Remember this phrase, he kept telling me: “Kleiner kinder – kleiner tzoris, greiser kinder-greiser tzoris. Little children, little problems. Big children, big problems. Kleiner kinder, loz mir nit shlofen. Grieser kinder, loz mir nit leben. Little children don’t let you sleep. Big children don’t let you live.”
As we crossed the George Washington Bridge on our way home, the sun was setting, casting an orangey, red glow across the entire New York City skyline. We all looked over in awe, at our city, being lit, as if deliberately to sparkle across the mighty Hudson River, and make us take note of its majesty. We exhale in unison and I feel a sense of peace in the car, but my tears slowly continued their trickle. It was all happening too fast and I was powerless over time. The older they get, the more control we must surrender. It’s a parent’s final exam: did I prepare my kids enough for what a sonofabitch life can be?
* Fake name, obviously.