When News of a Suicide Comes During Memoir Class
Practicing Compassion in a Room Where Difficult Things are Shared
“All things human take time.”
–Terrance DesPres, The Survivor
Our break hadn’t felt any different that week: students chatted, scrolled through messages and feeds, snacked on grapes and popcorn that had been brought by a volunteer. The 16 of us were gathered around a table in the seminar room of the Victorian home-turned-writing building on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus. Since the heat was still on and the outdoor temperature crept toward 70 for the first time that spring, the air was heavy, which turned out to be appropriate.
A few minutes into break, I had seen the university-wide email from the president. A member of the junior class, a female student enrolled in the Wharton School of Business, had died that morning. I scanned the message, which included remarks of condolence and information about campus support resources. I looked up. No one appeared to be reacting unusually to their own screens. After a quick Facebook and Google search, what I had feared appeared to be confirmed: the student had died by suicide early that morning, struck by a subway train at a station near campus.
This was not a new tragedy at Penn. In fact, it was the tenth student suicide in three years. But this was the first time the news had broken during my three-hour nonfiction workshop. In my class, we focus on personal essay and memoir, which means that we examine what makes us, individually and collectively, human, and we attempt to distill this humanity, by way of our own experience, into words. For many students, this is a new endeavor that requires a leap of faith to combine personal histories, newly drawn insights, and literary technique.
Because my class requires students to draw on their experience, the work is rigorous in a way that calculus and economics are not. My students’ essays are by no means always tragic or extreme in nature—I’ve read brilliant pieces about daily workout routines, middle school frenemies, and even summer camp, a topic almost impossible to address without overwrought sentimentality. I have also read essays that grapple with parents’ deaths, mental health crises, and sexual assault. Some of these tough pieces do just what good nonfiction should, and get at a universal theme through the writer’s particulars. Others don’t quite get there, I think, because the material is still too close, an occupational hazard of being between the ages of 18 and 22.
Given that we had broached difficult topics that semester, both in student work and in the readings that I assigned, it may have been easier to address the student suicide than if, say, we had been in a biology lecture. In the weeks following this death as well as the others, Penn students spoke out about how they wished faculty were more willing to discuss, or at least acknowledge, what had happened in an open, sensitive manner. And, indeed, there was an infuriating and baffling incident days after Olivia Kong’s death in which a biology professor remarked that he would “take no personal responsibility for any suicides that happen as a result of my grading.” While the student concerns were valid, as confirmed by the biology professor’s statement, I knew I was at an advantage as someone whose class covers the best and worst of the human experience and the attempt, by undergraduates themselves, to put it all into words.
Instead of channeling this into confidence, I did the opposite as I prepared to reconvene my class that afternoon. I had said in one of our first meetings that we must examine even the most personal writing from a distanced perspective, that the last thing a writer who had told a tragic story wanted to hear was, simply, “You’re so brave,” with no critical feedback. (This was also an indirect way to warn students that if they were writing about an experience to be told, “You’re so brave,” they might reconsider.) While teachers of memoir should exercise a kind of tough love when it comes to student work, in order to promote writing that progresses toward emotional realization and intellectual rigor, in this moment, there was neither distance nor perspective. This was not literature; it was life.
As I took my seat at the head of the table, I didn’t have much of a plan. I knew if anyone had a big emotional reaction to the news, that person would become my focus and I would get them to the best place, which I would somehow determine—perhaps the counseling center, the chaplain, or to friends. I wasn’t sure where that would leave the rest of the class. As it turned out, the response was quiet. And it didn’t fall to me to bring up what had happened. Just at the moment we reconvened, as I was taking a deep breath, Sara, who had a knack for being direct, asked if we had seen the news.
“That is just what I was about to say,” I said, exhaling. I referred to the email from the president, hesitating to say more. I wasn’t, after all, an authority on what happened, and didn’t have any more access to the facts than my students did. I told them as much, and asked if we could compile what we were discovering as a group. Students spoke up as they looked at their laptops. Her name was Olivia Kong. She had jumped in front of an eastbound SEPTA train at 40th
I said they were welcome to leave, whether it was because they knew Olivia or because they needed to be somewhere else. Rebecca, a soft-spoken, brilliant freshman, said she had a friend who was close with Olivia, so she set off to find her. Grace, a senior who was often, to my relief, willing to weigh in on things when others were quiet, said she was communicating with fellow members of Alternate Spring Break about how the group should respond. I told her to proceed as she needed to.
While I don’t remember exactly what else I said, the most important thing then was to say something, to dedicate time with the group to the moment. As I spoke, tears welled up in some eyes, but, for the most part, my students’ expressions were blank, of shock, fatigue, or the honest response of not knowing how to respond. I said something about how any reaction to this news was understandable.
I had two pedagogical instincts that I chose to ignore. The first was to refer to an essay we had read early in the semester, “Suicide of a Schoolteacher,” by the writer (and one of my graduate school advisors) Phillip Lopate. In the piece, Lopate reflects on the suicide of his colleague in a New York City elementary school, a prickly but dedicated teacher, and how the school community reacted to the death. A central conflict of the piece concerns whether to tell the students the cause of the death and how to handle their responses. The same questions weren’t relevant here, since my students were twice the age of Lopate’s and were already privy to that most difficult fact.
There were valuable insights offered by Lopate in his essay, but to bring them up in this moment would have felt like I was trying to tie the tragedy that unfolded before us into my syllabus. By doing so, I would essentially, in real life, compress the “double perspective” (a term Lopate uses in his craft essay “Reflection and Retrospection,” which my class had also read) by likening what we were going through in this very moment to a piece of literature that had taken Lopate eight years to write. Not only did this feel inappropriate, it felt inaccurate and even dangerous to link something so new and raw, something that we only knew about from preliminary emails, online news stories, and Facebook posts to something in our photocopied coursepacks.
This isn’t to say that educators can’t soothe. As Lopate, who held the position of writer-in-residence at the school, considers that he is not qualified to discuss the suicide with his students because he is not a counselor, he muses, “What else was being a teacher but trying to respond as humanly as possible to problems that would not wait for an expert?”
It was this question, while not fully articulated in my consciousness at the time, but buried in my memory after having taught Lopate’s essay for years, that led to my second ultimately ignored instinct. If I were to respond as humanly as possible, I would tell the students what Olivia’s death brought up for me: not only the preceding suicides at Penn, but my own mother’s suicide, which had occurred over 20 years earlier, when I was 12 years old and she was, coincidentally, 33, the age I was as I sat in my classroom.
I either withheld the most human part of my response or the decision to withhold was a gesture of humanity in itself.
On one hand, disclosing the fact of my mother’s suicide to my students felt right, a way to signal myself as a guide in this incomprehensible moment. “I’ve been through this,” I’d be saying. “You can trust me.” But it was more than this, I decided. Too much. This was a blow that may or may not have been able to be absorbed by the 15 people around the table. Telling my students that my own mother killed herself as they considered the news of their fellow student’s self-inflicted death could be too much to bear. It could lead them to question our respective roles and responsibilities in the exact moment they shouldn’t have to. The last thing I wanted was for them to swallow their own reactions even more, in attempt to spare me grief.
In my winding, quiet response to Olivia’s death, I told the group that I had lost a family member to suicide. Middle ground. Or a cop-out, a vague, protective statement, which we typically frown upon in memoir class. But it was way to acknowledge that I had thought and felt a great deal about this topic without requiring them to bear the brunt of my loss on top of the day’s news. I either withheld the most human part of my response or the decision to withhold was a gesture of humanity in itself.
In earlier years, though never in the wake of such news, as an undergraduate and as a teaching assistant, I chose to mention my mother’s death in writing and literature classrooms to demonstrate how I related to a particular work, to emphasize how certain stories can’t be fully explained, how a writer’s constructed arc that ends with closure must be resisted in order to acknowledge how we move through life’s most difficult moments. I also wanted the connection and, yes, the attention that came from bearing witness.
Somewhere along the way, as the gap between my students’ age and my own widened, I outgrew my impulse to share. A teacher is no more objective than her students when it comes to personal reactions—or as one of my own writing teachers used to say, “We all bring our own shit to the table.” I now respond to student work from a more measured perspective, keeping the difficult details of my life out of the conversation even when I mention relating personally to something, which is equivalent to the necessary distance a writer must have as she approaches her own work.
In class that April afternoon, things grew quiet and I realized I had another decision to make: should we continue? To end class so abruptly felt wrong: it would signal the opposite of support. To continue would suggest business as usual. In Lopate’s essay, he writes of how the students criticized their teachers’ response to the death: “Mr. Becker died. And now, on to math!” I told the group that I thought it was best that we stay together and, if it was okay, we would continue with workshopping another student’s essay. They nodded in affirmation, but I had no idea if they meant it.
As we began our usual process—the writer reads an excerpt, and then we go around the room each commenting on the piece—I knew I had made the wrong decision. It felt like the news had never struck. The students were so good, too good. And so was I—I was, after all, a Penn alumna. In recent years, the term “Penn Face,” a rough equivalent of “game face,” has come to signify the ability that Penn students have to hide what’s bothering them and continue along their high-achieving paths. To watch this in person, and so quickly, was chilling.
When we finished the workshop, I told the group we’d end for the day, 45 minutes early. I said I would remain in our classroom if anyone felt like talking. By this point, I had an intense headache, which was not my reason to end class, but a reminder that the stress of grief, even indirect grief, manifests physically.
While no one stayed to talk (later, a few sent emails, which turned into conversations), everyone took more time than usual to pack up, perhaps the result of the weight of the news or the weight in the air. Or maybe, I can hope, they slowed down because whether they realized it or not, they were comforted to have a few more moments together in our room, where they had read, written, and talked at great length about the things that made them whole.