Sunday, April 12, 2015


Trigger Warning:  Suicide

I've told you before about our boxes.  Our boxes contain all the things we're dealing with in our life, things that can drain us, sap us, and/or stress us.  When a box is full and can't fit anything else, it's full. It doesn't matter if the things in my box look "worse" than things in your box.  When a box is full, it's full and you just can't deal with anything else.

My box has been pretty full lately.

Trips to hospital emergency rooms add to my box.  Keith's change in employment and changes to our habits and routines add to my box--even though this job is awesome, just what he wanted, and just what we need. It is still an adjustment, and that can be scary depending on how our children are affected by just such a change.

Learning of a family member's suicide this past Tuesday, a young 22 year old active duty Navy man, adds to my box. Suicide in itself is a topic and occurrence that can fill my box quickly.  My heart hurts any time I hear of a suicide, even if I don't know the victim or the victim's family members.  In addition to dealing with our own suicide attempt, I have had 3 students over the years who attempted suicide while they were my students--middle school students, bright kids, full of potential.  Our neighbor of many years committed suicide in his driveway when our children were younger, and I had to shield them from sights and a knowledge they should not and did not have at that time in their lives.  A year or so after our suicide attempt, one of my mom's best friends, whom she'd been in a prayer group with for over 35 years, committed suicide.  She was part of our family.

All suicide losses are HARD losses.  It is a grieving process more complicated than the "typical" death experienced naturally, be it old age, a disease process, or tragic accidents.  The questions, confusion, judgment, what-if's, and shock/surprise of such a death impedes the grief process, often prolonging any healing that may come.

I've titled this blog "underdogs."  I LOVE underdogs.  I'm often the one choosing to root for the underdog if "my team" is not playing in a game.  I thrive on stories about underdogs, because I want to see them beat the odds, prove everyone wrong, and reach beyond the "potential" anyone ever predicted.  I think that may be one of the qualities or character traits in me that lead me to teaching, but specifically teaching middle school students--definitely a misunderstood group.  Let's face it, an often disliked group of kids, too.  Those are hard, hard years.

Many people will not understand this, but teaching gifted students and advocating for them also was often a practice in working with, for, and trying to undo negative educational experiences that made me a champion for this population.  I am a natural born educator, researcher, social worker and advocate.  Some day, maybe, I'm going to put all that to work together.  Right now, I am those things for my children.  Right now I advocate for other families in the mental health system and its inadequacies that fail us and help to feed the stigma.

And sometimes those children 
were "mine" 
in another time and setting.  

This last June, I went to a high school graduation.  One of my "underdogs" was graduating high school, when most teachers tried to hold him back, a kid who spent the majority of his 6th grade year sitting in hallways and in in-school-suspension.  DAILY.  He is a brilliant and creative kid, making it to Destination Imagination Global competition during his junior/senior year of high school.  He actually graduated early from high school as well.  He is a reserve Marine soldier now, providing him money for school, a place to belong, a place that gives structure, and fulfilling a lifelong dream.  This kid loves the military.  And he's the kind of soldier you want on your team--so he's not using his brilliance against you!  I could tell you many lessons learned about this kid. Someday, he will write a book about his life, and teachers will have big roles in his story--both positively and, unfortunately, very negatively.

He will always be one of "mine," 
and I will always be in his corner cheering.

And, listen, a few of us cheered even louder when the person on the stage handed him his diploma and shook his hand.  This educator happens to be on the list of people who looked at this student and told him he wouldn't make it.  THAT is poetic justice at its finest.  Fortunately, there was a high school teacher who saw what we did, taking him under her wing and becoming his guardian.

This student is one of my favorite underdog stories, probably because it's a dramatic tale and a cautionary tale about how much difference teachers can have in a student's life. We even had to fight teachers to get this student into our gifted classes, which meant he was no longer on their class rolls and didn't have to do anything related to him ever again!  A student most had written off long ago as lazy, disobedient and incapable of learning.  This student, who tested as being in the top 1% of gifted individuals, when normed against other gifted individuals.

This young man's story is an easy one to tell.

I have another underdog story to tell you.  This particularly story is one that is totally wrecking me right now.  This story begs to be told but it is not an easy one.  I do not even know why yet.  I don't know if there will be any happy endings.  I don't know if it's possible or if I even believe in them.

This tragedy that occurred to a former student has added quite a bit to my box in the last couple of weeks--so much so that I couldn't even commit to writing a blog post. The tragedy occurred years ago, but I only learned of it recently. I have been overwhelmed with the grief for him, a deep compassion and empathy, and an ache that takes my breath away when I contemplate his current life.  This has been the source of the quietness on my blog as of late.

I just. Couldn't write.

This story is about a young man who I was fortunate to get to know back in the late 90's when he was in my 8th grade English class.  We'll call him, "G."  Actually, there are some similarities in these 2 young men separated by more than 10 years.  G was more intelligent than he let on.  G was very misunderstood by adults in his life, including most teachers.  Misunderstandings lead to mistreatment, unfortunately, for G.  I did everything I could do for him at the time.

In my classroom, G was safe.  He was valued.  Suspicion and skepticism were not the lenses through which I viewed G.  I saw him as a kid.  He was a kid trying to navigate life without all the tools or support necessary to do so.  He'd given up on himself along with others in his life long before 8th grade.  The best he was hoping for at the time?  This his younger brother would not follow in his path and would make something better of himself.  This from a jaded 14 year old boy.

I worked hard to open up all G had to offer.  He would work for me, give new things a try, and was always congenial and respectful.  I don't think he always believed the things I told him about himself, but he did know that I believed them and that I believed in him.  He had the chance to show me who he was.  I didn't take the opinions of teachers before me or the warnings about his group of friends.

When he left middle school for high school, G and I managed to stay in touch as I have with other students over the years.  (Something especially easy in recent years with the advent of social media like Facebook.)  For a while I would hear from G.  Occasionally I ran in to his younger brother, who would give me an update and G's latest whereabouts and contact info.  The last time we talked much, in my recollection, was after he'd learned that he was going to be a father--long before it should have been his time.

Life for me became pretty hectic around the same time, as I became a mom--twice in 11 months time!  Then came my broken arms, surgeries, my best friend battling cancer, teaching again, graduate school, etc.  I list these things, because it makes me feel better.  Truthfully, though, nothing can make me feel better about this.  I should have known. I should have been there.  A vigil at a hospital.

I do not know 
how I did not know 
what had happened to G.  
When it happened.

A couple of weeks ago, G was on my heart one evening, out of the blue.  I decided to look him up on Facebook, I don't know why I hadn't done so before.  I did find G on Fb, and
my heart instantly sank.  
A face and smile I recognize, 
but a body I don't.  
A body no longer connected to the the spinal cord, nerves, and brain necessary for it to function in any way.
Wasted away.

What happened was that while he was sleeping in his bed as a young adult years ago, G's father entered his room and shot him.  The 1st bullet entered between his lungs and heart.  He jumped up to run and the 2nd bullet lodged in the spinal cord in his neck.  His father then put the gun to his own body, committing suicide and falling on his gravely injured son.  A month long coma, miraculous awakening, concern for his dad, beating the odds continually and an irreversible condition altering forever the rest of G's life.  His family's, too.  Unfortunately, no family can provide G's extensive care at home.

Sweet, Jesus, I can hardly handle this right now.  And it didn't even happen to me.  This isn't about me.

A 30 year old young man.  
In a body.  
In a health care facility.  

I had fears for G after he left my middle school world for high school.  This was not one of them.  Never was this one of them.

This tragedy has completely devastated me, all the way around. Like it just happened. To the point that processing it has required putting my current grief boxes back on their shelf, because this one needs my attention.  I need to process this situation, not only because I love its victim, but because this kid needs me.  Maybe he needs cards, packages, calls, or visits.  He definitely needs a cheerleader again.  A cheerleader rooting for his G in a completely different underdog way.  I will be that person again for him.  Once I grieve and accept.

Family members have shared that G has a positive spirit, he hopes to touch the lives of other troubled youth, and is always looking for a medical miracle.  G also possesses a forgiving spirit.  He is a better human than me.  I have yet to forgive his dad.

I remembered tonight, the advice of my friend, Kimberley, who helped me in my own grief after our suicide attempt.  So, I am reminding myself that to be able to move on from this place of devastation, I must let go of hoping for a better yesterday.
For G. 

Trying to find a card to send him, has left me in tears.  Thinking about a gift package to send him, leaves me pondering scenarios that no one should have to ponder. What? How? Who?  I have yet to be able to pick up the phone and call him.  But I will.  Soon.

And I will see him face to face.
And cheer him on.

I do not know the many lessons that may come out of this story. The 1st underdog story above reminds me why I taught and fought for and loved my many underdogs. G reminds me that: Underdogs matter.  
Underdogs are people.  
Underdogs can be written off by both teachers AND their parents.  
Do not do this.  
Do not label an individual, child or not, as incapable, unworthy, not salvageable.  

*As a side note, an important one, if you know of the individuals to whom I am referring, feel free to comment, but please do so without using actual names.  If you wish to speak to me or comment more directly or specifically than is appropriate in an anonymous fashion, please send me a private message.  In G's story, there are individuals who have been protected from the full knowledge of the facts in this story, most of which I left out purposely to respect and honor that.  If you know already what happened, you might inadvertently mention something that could hurt those being protected.

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