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Piranhas on the Prairie

By Anthony J. Mullen — October 19, 2009 4 min read

The large piranha swam back and forth until the tapping of my right index finger caught his attention. The fish turned ninety degrees and looked directly at my hand. The fish was the size of a small football and obviously well-fed, but it displayed a set of jagged teeth eager to keep busy.

“He’s been with us since 1989,” the hotel clerk remarked. “I can’t begin to tell you how many people never get to see a real piranha until they visit South Dakota.”

I think she noticed me tapping on the glass. I feel like an idiot.

“It’s the first piranha I’ve ever seen.” I replied.

A group of small orange and gold fish is huddled near the bottom of the tank, trying to stay motionless.

“Why are these fish still alive?” I ask.

The clerk shrugs her shoulders. “That piranha picks his victims; I don’t know why some fish are eaten and others spared. I suppose the fish on the bottom are the lucky ones.”

I suppose so, although I am not sure if lucky is the right word. The cluster of small fish appears anything but fortunate and is defenseless against the capricious carnivore. One of the fish leaves the huddle and, quite inexplicably, swims toward the piranha. The small fish stops in front of the piranha’s mouth and is quickly consumed.

“Did you just arrive in Pierre?” she asked.

I walk away from the large fish tank and talk about my trek to Pierre. The capital of South Dakota is not a major airline destination, so I needed to make connecting flights in Minneapolis, Lincoln, and Watertown. Horace Greely never envisioned the challenge of trying to coordinate so many flights when he advised young men to Go West.

The receptionist listened politely and then inquired if I was staying at the hotel to attend the teachers’ conference or the meeting of high school wrestling coaches.

“I’m with the teacher group,” I answered.

I was scheduled to address the South Dakota Governor’s Teacher Leadership Conference the following morning. The hotel was also hosting a meeting of high school wrestling coaches. Wrestling is a popular sport in South Dakota, a piece of information that makes sense considering the state’s history. Back in the 1760s tribes that would later form the Sioux Nation wrestled the land from the indigenous Arikara; in the 1860s troops of volunteer cavalry and a number of militia units wrestled the land from the Sioux. Hardy ranchers and farmers ultimately wrestled the land away from French and Canadian fur trappers, although the trappers did not put up much of a fight because they no longer had any Indian trading partners.

A young teacher walks by and stops abruptly. “I recognized your face from a picture of you in the conference room,” she said in a cheerful voice. “I’m glad that you will be speaking about troubled teenagers; we have our fair share of problems right here in Pierre.”

Pierre does not appear to be a city affected by anything other than cold winters and hot summers. The high school graduation rate is among the highest in the nation, people still keep their doors unlocked at night, and the local dairy Queen is free of graffiti. The prairie has an eerie silence but that’s better than the staccato of drive-by shootings or the incessant sound of police sirens.

“What kind of problems?” I ask.

The teacher looks around to make sure others are not listening. “About ten years ago we were known as the “Suicide City.”

“Suicide City?”

The teacher informed me that in the late 1990s Pierre was wrenched by a series of suicides, most of them teenagers. Eleven people from 13 to 23 years old took their own lives during a three year period. A rate about 13 times the national rate of teenage suicide.

“Why did so many young people commit suicide?” I asked.

“Nobody had a good explanation for the suicides,” the teacher remarked. “It’s as though something insidious crept into the town and took away the lives of these young people.”

Suicide has always defied a good explanation because it’s hard to rationalize a seemingly irrational act, and the teacher made an acute observation about “something insidious” that moved stealthily through the town. A phenomenon known as “cluster suicides” appears to target teenagers. This is when the disease acts more like a contagion and creates “hot spots” in certain areas. Pierre was one such hot spot in 1998.

I begin to recall some of the teenage suicide notes I read while working for the NYPD. Teenagers commit suicide for many of the same reasons adults kill themselves, but divorce of parents, inability to find success at school, feelings of worthlessness, rejection by friends or classmates, death of someone close to the teenager, or the suicide of a friend are reasons frequently scribbled on paper or napkins.

But it’s very rare that a person, young or old, dies by suicide because of one cause. The act is triggered by several negative life experiences and mental health professionals agree that over 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental illness at the time of their death. And the most common mental illness is depression.

Teenage suicide is not a topic openly discussed in many schools. It should be.

Fourteen teenagers commit suicide every day and twenty-five others give it a try. We need to do a better job identifying high risk students and providing more mental health services in our schools. Parents, teachers, family and friends must pay close attention to some of the most common teen suicide warning signs:

• Teen depression.
• Obsession with death
• Poems, essays and drawings that refer to death
• Dramatic change in personality or appearance
• Irrational, bizarre behavior
• Overwhelming sense of guilt, shame or reflection
• Changed eating or sleeping patterns
• Severe drop in school performance

If a piranha and cluster suicides can be found on the prairie, none are truly safe.

Update, October 21, 2009
CNN has an interesting piece on teen suicide in the Latino community. Here it is: “Trapped between worlds, some Latina teens consider suicide”

The opinions expressed in Road Diaries: 2009 Teacher of the Year are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.