Here is the full transcript of Brittni Darras’ TEDx Talk: The fight against teen suicide begins in the classroom at TEDxMileHigh conference.
It was April, 2013, and I was one month away from completing my first year of teaching. I was at a barbecue when I got the call.
It was a number I didn’t recognize but something compelled me to answer it. My administrator was on the other end. This couldn’t be good. Administrators never call their teachers on Sundays. She told me that school follows a process when something happens to one of our students. The first step is informing that student’s current teachers.
In that moment, I could picture every single one of my students. I wondered which one is it, what happened, and most importantly, are they okay. She told me his name. She said there was an incident, he was taken to the hospital, and it didn’t look good.
I asked if there is anything I could do to help. Could I send flowers? Did he want visitors? I was 22 years old and I failed to understand the severity of the situation. It was too late. My 16 year-old student died by suicide. I was devastated.
No teacher, no parent, no human should ever have to attend a child’s funeral. I was also shocked. How could I have missed the signs? I had seen him almost every day for the past nine months and he seemed fine.
Over the next few years, I was more observant than ever, trying to make sure I didn’t miss those signs again. Were any of my students less talkative than usual? Had anyone withdrawn from their friend group? Did anyone seem sad?
It was March, 2016, almost three years after I lost my student to suicide, that I realized watching for signs alone isn’t enough. I was at a parent-teacher conference and a parent approached my table. Her daughter had been absent from my class for two weeks, and I didn’t know why until that night. My student was in a mental health hospital. She had not only planned to take her life but in the process of doing so when the police received an anonymous report saying that she might harm herself, she had deleted her social media accounts and left goodbye letters. She had prepared to leave the world.
If it wasn’t for that report, my student would not be alive today. But the police were able to break in, save her and bring her to the hospital. I was heart broken. This was the second time in three years that I had a student who is suicidal, and there were no signs. How could somebody who is so beautiful, intelligent, hardworking and friendly, want to take her own life? She seemed so happy.
But that’s what everyone says after it’s too late. In that moment, sitting across from her mom and tears in on both of our eyes, I knew I had to do something. So, I asked permission to write my student a letter, and her mom agreed to bring it to the hospital. I said a lot in this letter. I told her she has a contagious smile that brighthens the lives of those around her.
I told her I loved how she always put the needs of others first. And I had noticed that she always was willing to help someone else on their homework before starting her own. I told her the reason why I kept so many of her projects was because she was a perfectionist. She has gone above and beyond the minimum requirements and produced phenomenal results that I wanted to show to my future students. Finally, I told her I missed her, that our classroom wasn’t the same without her, and that I couldn’t wait for her to return to school.
But when my student got the letter, her reaction wasn’t what I expected. She cried. She didn’t know how somebody could say such nice things about her, because she didn’t think anybody would miss her when she was gone. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 44,000 Americans die by suicide each year. That’s the equivalent of one suicide every 12 minutes.
In addition, for each suicide, there are 25 more attempts. That means there are over 1 million suicide attempts – not plans but actual attempts – in the United States in just one year. The Centers for Disease Control and prevention suggests that there’s been an increase in annual suicide rates since as early as 1999.
In 2014, suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ranging from 10 to 34 years of age. I’m sure there is a million reasons and theories for the increase in suicide among young people; but the bottom line is our kids are killing themselves and it has to stop.
So, what do we do about the increase in suicide for children who are 18 years of age and younger? I believe it starts with teachers. As teachers, we see our students every single day. Sometimes, we see our students more hours in a day than their own friends and family. We worry about them at night and we think about them on the weekends. We care deeply about their success and happiness.
But sometimes, teachers worry about crossing an ethical line. They’ve been told it’s better to be professional and maintain boundaries than react and respond to student emotions. So, they stick to the job description: teaching curriculum, grading homework, assigning the assignments and preparing for standardized tests. Academia revolves around criticism. We search for mistakes, write suggestions for improvement and hope that will lead to better test scores, better essays and better students.
But the problem is that these kids are not robots. They are human beings with human emotions and feelings. On top of the stress of academics, there are social pressures, family issues and the need to fit in. Feedback on an essay may help improve their writing. That’s true.
But realistically speaking, five years from now, how many of my students are going to remember the assignment I gave them, let alone my critics. I believe what these students need more than a score on a test or worksheet is love and support. They need to know someone cares. All I knew was if I already lost one student to suicide, and I nearly lost another, I was certain there are other students in my classroom who are dealing with similar struggles even if they didn’t say or show it. So, I decided to take action not just for one of my students but for all of my students.
I sat down and began writing personalized cards to all 130 of my students. It was two months of constant writing but I was determined for each student to know what made them special and unique. I wanted them to know that no matter what struggle they were facing, they make a difference in this world and somebody has noticed it. After I finished writing the cards, I took a picture of them and I posted it to Facebook. I post a lot about my experiences as a teacher but this post was different.
Within 24 hours, complete strangers were sharing my post. Within 48 hours, students were coming into my classroom to thank me for cards they hadn’t even received yet. Before long, I had an interview with the BBC, and articles were soon being posted online in languages I couldn’t even read. Questions started pouring in, but some questions were asked above the others.
One question was: “How did you find nice things to write about 130 teenagers?” And even more so, “How did you find nice things to write about the students who are failing your class?” My response: “It was easy, and the cards I wrote for failing students were probably more important than the rest, because a student who is failing needs that positive acknowledgement more than anybody else. Just because they’re failing doesn’t mean they don’t have other wonderful qualities. Just because they’re failing doesn’t mean they are a failure.”
Last year, a student walked into my classroom in the second month of school, saying that she was already failing four classes. I told her mine wasn’t going to be one of them. So anytime we had a major assignment coming up, I asked her to hang out with me after school and we worked through the assignment side by side.
She barely passed both semesters but she passed. In her card, among other things, I told her, her ambition and determination amazed me. I also told her I enjoyed the afternoons we spent together and I loved hearing her stories about her friends, family and band. She was so passionate about band. On the last day of school, I asked her if she’d considered going to college, and she was shocked.
She said it was the first time anybody had ever said that she was capable of going to college. That’s what happens when we label failing students as failures. They believe it even if it isn’t true. But instead, if we can give them something positive to focus on, they could give them an entirely different future to live into. The process of writing these cards has profoundly impacted the way I think about my students, and the people I interact with on a daily basis.
In anticipation of my new yearly tradition, I have got into the habit of looking for the good in my students throughout the year. I noticed things I wouldn’t otherwise, because I trained myself to see the things that others might not. Instead of just a “distraction to the classroom,” I see a student with a hilarious sense of humour who enjoys the company of his peers and likes to make other people laugh.
Instead of just a “notoriously tardy student,” I see a kid with drive and ambition who is balancing sports, a job and school, yet still manages to succeed in all three, even if it means coming into a first period a little bit late after a long night at work.
Last January, my student who attempted suicide returned from winter break with a gift for me. It was a journal and on the first two pages, she wrote me a letter. In it, she said, “Even days that seem to be filled with gloom, have some positive aspect to them. Stars give even the darkest of nights light.” She graduated last month and is headed to college with a bright future ahead of her. If we can shift the academic culture ever so slightly towards acknowledgement and encouragement, we might stand a chance to ending this teen suicide epidemic, but it starts by taking action.
We aren’t going to solve anything by just looking for signs, because the truth is in many cases, there are no signs. It’s so easy to point out the bad, to say what someone can improve or change. Criticism is instinctual. It doesn’t require vulnerability. But we need to make this change in the classroom and on a societal level.
Instead of looking for the bad, let’s start to acknowledge people strengths and what they do well. Let’s make that our default, not just as teachers, but as human beings. We can make a lasting positive impact on others. We can end this epidemic of suicide in young people. The answer is simply this: it begins with kindness.
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