As I watched my son, James, board the school bus for his first day of kindergarten, I thought of a boy named Tony.
Tony was a high school sophomore whom I came to know during my first year as an assistant principal at a high school in North Carolina. My initial encounter with him was a result of an extended truancy. Entering my office, he appeared worn and tired, older than his 16 years. When I asked him about his absences, he told me he had had to take care of some personal problems but that he was ready now to do well in school.
He did do well-for a while. He came to school, attended class, and completed his work. After a few weeks, though, he began to miss classes and was soon truant again. A pattern developed. Tony would be truant for several weeks. Then he’d return, asking to be admitted to school. I would intercede on his behalf with his teachers, who would then reluctantly take him back. He would receive a concerned lecture from me about the importance of school, go back to class, do well for a while, and then he would be truant again.
We developed a relationship. He began dropping by my office during his free time. He’d sit facing me and say he wanted to talk. As it turned out, I did most of the talking. Tony said little. I would strain to think of questions, which he would answer With a word, a nod, or an odd grin. Eventually, he would leave, always saying the same thing, “Later, man.” I was relieved to get back to my work.
His erratic attendance and our awkward relationship continued for the remainder of the year. He called me one evening to tell me that he had been arrested the night before for shoplifting. It had been a mistake, he said. He had tried on a coat in a department store and forgotten to remove it before he left. Although he didn’t say he was asking for help, he accepted my offer to call a friend of mine who was an attorney. My friend suggested several options. At the end of the conversation, she said, unnecessarily I thought, “He’s probably guilty, you know.” “I know,” I said.
His junior year began with greater promise. His attendance and his work improved. His teachers assured me that Tony was trying. His occasional visits to my office continued. They seemed important to him.
Unfortunately, toward the end of the first semester, Tony threatened a teacher in a dispute over a grade. I recommended that he be expelled from school. When I told him of my decision, he was disturbed. He had not meant to threaten the teacher, he said. I told him I believed him but that the teacher had interpreted his remarks to be a genuine threat. School was not a place where teachers would be threatened, I said. He pleaded for a second chance. It was the only time I had seen him truly animated. But I had to tell him I had already given him enough second chances. He shrugged, grinned, and said, “OK” as he walked out of my office. Neither he nor anyone in his family contested my recommendation.
I came upon Tony in town shortly after his expulsion. Somewhat defensively, I told him how sorry I was that I had to do what I had done but that I felt I had no other choice. He looked at me, grinned that grin of his, shook his head, and walked away.
A few days later, he walked out into a field with a pistol, pointed it at his head, pulled the trigger, and killed himself.
I called at Tony’s house the next afternoon, worried that his family would blame me and, perhaps, not let me in the house. I was wrong. They seemed pleased to see me. His mother sat with me on the sofa and showed me photographs of Tony when he was young.
The one photograph that has stayed with me showed Tony turning to smile for the camera as he boarded a bus for his first day of school. I cannot imagine any child looking sweeter or more beautiful. Tony’s mother cried. “I don’t understand,” she whispered repeatedly. As I was leaving, she told me that she was glad I came. “Tony liked you,” she said. “He thought of you as his friend.” She meant to be kind.
Soon after Tony’s death, I accepted a position as a high school principal in Pennsylvania. Toward the end of my first year there, the son of a faculty member committed suicide. At the funeral service, the priest said, “We must understand that sometimes the pain becomes so great that a person sees no choice but to take his life.” I had thought of Tony as lazy, unfocused, and confused. I had thought of him as lacking the will necessary to get his life in order. But never once had I thought of him as in pain.
It wasn’t until two years ago, as I watched James board the bus for kindergarten, that I allowed myself to consider my role in Tony’s life and death. I thought about what the priest had said. I thought about the photograph of Tony boarding the bus. I thought about his mother’s saying he considered me a friend.
Hoping to understand better what had happened, I managed to locate Tony’s younger sister, whom I had also known as a high school student. I asked her what life had been like for Tony. She described an impoverished childhood and an abusive father. Once, she said, her father had left their house in a rage, threatening to set fire to it as they slept. She described Tony’s gradual addiction to drugs. Perhaps most poignantly, she described her brother in his 15th year, pleading with her to teach him to read.
That conversation made it clear to me that Tony’s attempts to return to school in the face of his circumstances and his addiction were heroic. He only wanted for himself what we all want; he wanted to be successful and happy. He saw school as his one route to that, and he saw me as his only connection to school. I realize now that when I cut him off from his hope, the pain became too great for him.
As I watched my son board the bus for school that day, I realized that Tony’s family, even through his turbulent final years, loved him as deeply as I love James. I realized that Tony was his mother’s son, as surely as James is mine. He was her baby. Perhaps while he slept as a small child, she had slipped into his room to check his breathing, just as I still do with James. She wanted him to be happy, just as I want James to be happy. I think of her now and wonder at the terror she must have felt as she watched his life come unglued.
While I don’t blame myself for Tony’s suicide, I will always be troubled by the thought that I could have done something to ease his despair. Parents place their trust in schools. They trust us to nurture their children’s talents and dreams. They trust that we will set high standards for them, that we will love them. At best, I was casual about that trust. I hadn’t even known that Tony couldn’t read.
I am not a person who has no regrets about the things he has done in his life. If there were one thing I could change, it would be the way I responded to Tony. I don’t know what exactly I would do differently, but I am certain that if I had taken the time to look at Tony through the eyes of his mother, I would have done more.
I think back to when I covered sports for my college newspaper. In the locker room, after a difficult road loss for our basketball team, one of the managers from the host team asked our coach if there was anything he could do. The coach, with every ounce of grace he could muster, smiled wryly and said, “Sure, get me back to where we were one point down, and I’ll take it from there.”
That’s how I feel about Tony.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1994 edition of Teacher as First Person: Remembering Tony