The timing could not have been more unfortunate: on World Suicide Prevention Day, I learned that my sixth grade teacher died.
The fact that she died was shocking enough, but the cause was even more so. Apparently, it was a suicide.
The news struck me like a ton of bricks. I cried. I had fond memories of the blonde, honey-voiced Southern woman who taught me civics and English. I remembered random things about her: she loved Estée Lauder makeup. I never saw her without meticulously applied eyeliner or big earrings. Most of all, I remembered that she was kind to me and frequently told me I was smart.
However, not everyone has such fond memories.
Indeed, the friend who broke the news shared that he remembered a parent-teacher conference. Apparently, our teacher thought my friend was a “sissy” who needed toughing up. She told him bluntly that he would never amount to anything. It hurt my friend deeply and he carried it around with him for years.
I had no idea about any of this and at first wondered if he had mistaken her for someone else. Then I received a message from another former classmate who shared that our teacher was awful to him as well. She said my friend would never turn out to be anything more than a ditch digger.
These revelations left me reeling.
Even though I hadn’t seen her in over 20 years, I thought I knew this woman. I never would’ve imagined she was capable of such cruelty toward anyone, much less her students. Nor in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that this devoutly religious woman who seemed to be very involved in the community and her beloved church would ever take her own life.
Still, how well did I actually know her? How well did any of us?
I’ve often commented on the topic of human complexity. People are complex. It’s one of those few undeniables. I also happen to be a certified teacher and know better than most the stresses that come with teaching. There are always going to be those children whom a teacher clicks with better with than others. Apparently, she and I clicked right away.
As a teacher, I’ve certainly had students I click with, as well as my share of challenging ones. It’s also common to speculate about what may lie ahead for students, and not all of it is positive. However, I never once thought of saying the things that she supposedly said, especially in front of a child or parent.
Still, I’m willing to cut her some slack. A lot about her remains unknown, including perhaps some deep psychological pain or unhappiness that wasn’t noticeable to most.
While I wonder why she liked me, or at least seemed to like me, more than some of my classmates, I mostly wonder about whether there was something I could’ve done. Granted, I’m not delusional or arrogant enough to think I could’ve saved her, but I do wish I’d known she was on social media and could have connected with her if only to have told her that she was one of my most memorable teachers.
To the best of my knowledge, she never had any other job and she taught for 30 years before retiring. And if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that she really loved teaching. She had a passion for it that could not be faked.
And most of all, she taught me that words matter. In my case, her encouragement helped me survive an emotionally troubled adolescence complicated by a less-than-stable home life. In the case of my classmate, though, her words wounded him and even though he went on to do quite well and make something of himself by everyone’s standards, the pain of hearing her words was still evident all these years later.
I hope wherever she is, she hears my final words to her: I love you, and hope you’re at peace.
Author: Kimberly Lo
Editor: Evan Yerburgh