Classmates used to call him Houdini for the way he would deftly slip out of class and wander the hills behind his school, sketching pictures of butterflies and horses nipping at the green North Carolina grass.
So Mekye Malcolm’s fellow students at Carolina Friends School weren’t all that surprised on the cloudy afternoon of April 14, 1998, when the 16-year-old freshman was missing from his fifth-period science class.
Administrators at the 490-student private school on the outskirts of this university town were deeply worried, however. They knew Mekye Malcolm was emotionally troubled, and they had allowed him to return to school after a suicide attempt a few months earlier on the condition that everyone would keep an extra-close watch on his whereabouts.
While teachers scoured the 35-acre wooded campus looking for the missing teenager, Mekye was on the baseball field setting a chair under a sourwood tree behind the third-base dugout. There he would have a lovely view of the flower-dappled hillside. But this time, he didn’t go there to draw.
He positioned the chair under a low-lying branch that held a nylon rope used for whiffle-ball practice, cinched the cord tight around his neck, then crouched down, holding his knees inches from the ground and choking off his own breath.
Jim Henderson, the head high school teacher at the K-12 school, found Mekye Malcolm that afternoon, with his knees skirting the dirt and head bowed forward, “just as if he were praying.”
“There was literally just enough rope to hang himself with,” and it was just strong enough to hold his large frame, Mr. Henderson said. Mekye had had time, perhaps several minutes, to change his mind.
“He was a loner. He never really talked to friends on the phone. It used to worry me,” said his half-brother John Watkins, who was 10 years older than Mekye.
During Mekye’s childhood, the family moved throughout the South as his mother, Nayo Watkins, an arts educator and playwright, followed her husbands and chased her own job opportunities.
Seven of Ms. Watkins’ children came from three different marriages. She never married Mekye’s father. The only thing Mekye Malcolm ever received from his biological father was his name, Ms. Watkins says.
Ms. Watkins and her second husband, Hollis Watkins Sr., divorced before Mekye was even born. But Mr. Watkins was a surrogate father for the boy throughout his childhood. A former civil rights leader from Mississippi, Mr. Watkins would regale Mekye with stories of how he used to sign up blacks to vote during the 1960s. When Nayo Watkins moved her family to North Carolina in 1990 to take a job as an administrator for a dance company, Mr. Watkins’ visits were more sporadic.
During that period, Mekye’s longing for his absent biological father started to sting, his friends at school say. “He was angry at his [biological father] who left him, and he felt like he was in limbo,” his friend Hilary McKean-Peraza recalled.
A few years after moving to North Carolina, brothers John Watkins and Hollis Watkins Jr.—seven years older than Mekye and closest to his age—both left for college, leaving the baby of the family essentially an only child.
Mekye also started to feel increasingly alone in the Durham public schools. By 5th grade, he was having difficulty with even remedial tasks that required short-term memory, such as keeping track of homework assignments. Mekye eventually was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, and Ms. Watkins transferred him to Carolina Friends School 15 miles from their home.
For a single mother earning $35,000 a year with two sons in college, it was a financial hardship to scrape up the $6,000 a year for tuition to send Mekye to private school. But Ms. Watkins applied for a federal grant to help low-income self-employed families and scrimped. “I did the best I could,” she said. “I stayed in the red.”
When he entered the 6th grade at Carolina Friends School, Mekye finally started to progress. Nancy Parsifal, a middle school teacher, said that when she first saw Mekye, he was sitting at a table crying because he could barely read.
For the next three years Ms. Parsifal and the other teachers drilled him on reading skills and taught him math using visual objects rather than requiring calculations in writing. Children who have dyslexia, a sort of cross-wiring problem in the brain’s language center, have difficulty recognizing individual syllables of words—the necessary building blocks for reading.
Mekye made progress in grades 7 and 8. But when he made the leap to 9th grade, with more academically rigorous courses and less individualized instruction, he hit a wall.
As the inevitable cliques of high school congealed, Mekye also became more aware of how, as an African-American, he was set apart from his peers: He was one of only 11 black students in the high school. Most of his classmates were from affluent suburban families, while he came from modest circumstances and lived in the city.
“This was a private school of kids who have means. Mekye was aware that these kids lived in different neighborhoods that had different furniture,” Ms. Watkins said. Though the school took pains to be inclusive, such as observing Black History Month, Ms. Watkins said, “it was still like, ‘We want your little colored face in the circle while we do our Eurocentric thing.’ ”
Soon, Mekye started getting into mischief. After school, with his neighborhood friend Daniel Hogan, he would pop street lights with BB guns, and once the two of them started a fire in the middle of their street using brambles, alcohol, and leaves.
During that time, Daniel said, he and Mekye tried marijuana a couple of times and started drinking beer.
But the two boys never talked about emotional problems, so Daniel was surprised when he heard that his friend had barricaded himself in his bedroom and slashed his wrists. When the police came to break down the door, they found that Mekye, who had asthma, had also activated a fire extinguisher. That could have sent him into a fatal asthmatic shock. He was hospitalized at Duke University Medical Center for a week, then discharged with a prescription for the anti-depressant Zoloft.
Nothing, though, seemed to blunt his mood. His mother said he was like a walking pharmaceutical experiment, testing out several prescription drugs in a matter of weeks.
Earlier on the morning of Mekye’s death, the mellow, camplike atmosphere of his school was shattered by a girl’s scream. Hilary McKean-Peraza, a dancer whom Mekye apparently had a crush on, had suffered a postoperative muscle cramp in class that required immediate medical attention.
Mekye helped her into her mother’s van, but Hilary’s boyfriend rode with the 16-year-old to the hospital. As the van pulled away, Mekye started weeping. Tom Lamanna, a classmate who went over to comfort him, said that Mekye was mumbling that he had somehow caused the girl’s injury. “He cried for a few minutes, and then asked me to leave,” Tom remembered. “Then he walked away up to the field.”
Later, the police found a picture Mekye had drawn in art class that morning: It was an admirable rendering of a tree branch and a rope.
Ms. Watkins doesn’t like the image of a young black man hanging from a tree because of what it inevitably conjures up: “Lynchings that brings horror to one’s heart,” she said.
In many ways, Mekye Malcolm suffered from the same societal pressures that experts suggest are driving more black teenage boys to end their lives.
The suicide rate for black teenagers has more than doubled in the past two decades. The rate of suicides among black male teenagers increased from 3.6 per 100,000 in 1980 to 8.1 per 100,000 in 1995, according to a recent study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the numbers have continued to rise.
Social scientists say one reason for the dramatic increase in the black teenage suicide rate may be that as more black families make the transition into the middle class, community and family networks are splintering.
“As African-Americans move into the middle class and are isolated more from their community, there’s no comfort zone,” said Donna Holland Barnes, a professor of sociology at Southwest Texas State University. Ms. Barnes, who founded the National Organization of People of Color Against Suicide after her son killed himself, said that many of the youngsters who straddle two worlds the way Mekye Malcolm did feel the pressure of trying to compete in a white-dominated society.
Les Franklin, whose 15- year-old son committed suicide recently, now runs an organization for African- American youths. He said black teenagers lack the social support that existed in earlier decades. The solidarity of the civil rights era provided young people with a support network with which to battle the overt racism of the time, he said.
“These kids today aren’t fortified to deal with the subtle discrimination that I was,” Mr. Franklin said. “They give in to things my generation would resist.”
The lack of access to mental-health services in many black communities might also be a factor driving black youths to suicide, said Tonji Durant, an epidemiologist at the CDC and the author of a study on black teenage suicide. More than a quarter of all adolescents lack a regular source of health care, and many plans don’t include coverage for mental-health care, she said.
In addition to a paucity of services, many in the black community have an inherent distrust of the mental-health-care system, Ms. Durant said. “For many blacks,” she said, “seeking mental-health care is a sign of weakness. They just say, go pray.”
Nayo Watkins, Mekye Malcolm’s mother, agrees that blacks’ pride in their self-reliance at overcoming adversity runs deep. “We came here on slave ships. We didn’t jump off,” she said. “Even in the face of the worst, we have a spiritual sense of making it to the next day.”
“Blacks think of suicide as a character flaw,” Ms. Barnes added. “In other communities, it’s an illness.”
Even when she brought her son to the hospital after his first suicide attempt, Ms. Watkins hadn’t fully registered what was happening to him. She said she didn’t understand depression as a serious medical condition. “The nurse told me he had depression, and I thought, ‘I have pulled a lot of folks through bad times,’ ” she said. “I didn’t know the difference between clinical depression and having a bad day.”
Since her son’s death, Ms. Watkins, 58, has learned that depression like her son’s can be hastened by such stresses as chronic failure at school.
Children with learning disabilities have a 50 percent to 75 percent higher risk for depression and suicide, according to William N. Bender, a professor of special education at the University of Georgia, who reviewed the literature on learning differences and self-destructive behavior for a 1999 study.
Andrew Short, a Durham psychologist who treated Mekye’s dyslexia, said the boy’s problems in school were a catalyst for his depression. “School is the main arena they perform in, and if kids aren’t successful, that bothers them,” he said.
Mekye had struggled to bring his academic skills in line with his intellectual ability, but his teachers saw his effort lag as his progress slowed in 9th grade.
John Baird, the principal of Carolina Friends School, said officials there made many attempts to accommodate Mekye’s difficulties with reading and writing by personalizing assignments and demanding less written work. In social studies, for example, Mekye studied history through film.
“We did all we could to meet his needs,” Mr. Baird said recently from his office at the school.
Mr. Henderson, the high school teacher, added: “Mekye’s problems were of a magnitude we weren’t able to deal with.”
Ms. Watkins, however, thinks the school didn’t do everything it reasonably could have to help her son academically or emotionally. When his injured friend left school, and Mekye sat on a bench crying, an adult should have intervened, his mother said. “Here is a child with a mental ailment who was crying, and they left him alone,” she said. “What would they have done if the child had a physical ailment? They would not have left him.” Her son’s death, Ms. Watkins said, was “a tragedy of errors.”
In a corner of her living room, Nayo Watkins keeps a cluttered shrine to her dead son: a professional-looking wooden pencil box that he carved by hand, several unfinished charcoal portraits, his wooden walking stick, and his size-16 Nikes.
Last fall, over the Thanksgiving weekend, seven days before what would have been Mekye Malcolm’s 18th birthday, Ms. Watkins, Hollis Watkins Sr., and four of Mekye’s brothers and sisters gathered at the Durham cemetery where Mekye is buried amid a sea of flat gravestones. His relatives, arms linked, each took turns remembering, singing, and praying.
“He had a thin skin,” said his brother John. “But a thick threshold for pain.’'
As she has nearly every month since he died, Ms. Watkins placed a bouquet of fresh lilies and daffodils into the ready-made steel vase at her feet. As she turned to leave, she mouthed the inscription on the stone over his grave: “Peace, Mekye. We wish you peace.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2000 edition of Education Week as Mekye Malcolm, 1981-1998