|A final cry for help shows the limits to assisting troubled students.|
From the bleached blond hair with black tips to the intentionally torn clothes to the tattoo on her arm, Annie looked and acted like a rebel from the first day she set foot in my literature classroom. As a still-green teacher beginning my third year, I had been warned about this particular sophomore class and was prepared to lay down the ground rules on day one. Surveying my students to observe their reactions, I noticed a smirk cross Annie's face. I gave her one of those "don't smile until Christmas break" looks and continued with my list.
Things went smoothly for the first month except for the occasional smart-aleck remark, followed by her now-annoying smirk. By October, I wanted to wipe that smirk from her face, but I refrained. I knew that something had to be underneath Annie's icy façade.
We had been journaling since the beginning of the school year. While the journals were mainly based on in-class prompts, I had told the students they could also include anything they wanted to write. I did, however, warn them that I would have to report any serious personal problems they wrote about in their journals.
Annie started to write a great deal in hers. Each day she would add "Don't Read" to the tops of certain pages. She even stapled several pages together to keep me out of each forbidden entry. I respected her wishes, though I would have loved to read about what was going on in her life. In my responses to her entries, I commended her for using the journal for literature class as well as private use.
Slowly the "Don't Read" turned to "Please Read." What unfolded was startling. She wrote about the two different times that she had slit her wrists. She wrote about the various drugs that she had taken during her short life, a list longer than a typical grocery list for a family of four. She wrote about fights with her mother, who would drink half a bottle of whiskey before supper. She wrote about her fear of being pregnant and wondering about the father's identity. An undercurrent of suicidal thoughts tugged at each entry. I responded to her journal entries by saying that I was concerned about her and that she could call me if she needed anything.
The first call came at 3 a.m. one Saturday. Annie was drunk, as was her mother. The two were fighting as Annie tried to talk to me. She wanted me to drive over to her house, some 20 miles away. My common sense prevailed, and I talked her into letting me pick her up at 9 the next morning. I also spoke to her mother, who said that Annie was just trying to get attention. After I hung up the phone, I begged for sleep to overtake me, but thoughts of Annie prevented me from drifting off until 5:30.
Annie spent the rest of the weekend with my family. She was kind enough to tone down her wardrobe to a concert T-shirt and blue jeans. My two children and Annie blended like long-lost relatives; I was amazed at her rapport with preschoolers and her genuine interest in helping around the house with weekend chores.
As I returned Annie to her house that Sunday evening, she hesitated before opening the car door. "Thanks a lot for letting me stay," she said. "It feels great to have a family."
My children waved goodbye, and Annie smiled—an honest, open smile. I felt great for helping a student.
It was early spring when the phone calls in the middle of the night became a regular occurrence. I dreaded going to bed on weekends because I knew that she would call to tell me, in a drunken voice, about her problems with her mother, boyfriends, and life. She hated her life and didn't understand why she should continue living. I would offer numerous reasons to go on and tell her that suicide wasn't an option. One night, after spilling her guts for an hour, she told me, "Call me tomorrow, but not until 11 or later. I like to sleep late."
I felt trapped.
Throughout this entire ordeal, I kept the school's guidance counselor informed. He had helped commit Annie to a psychiatric ward the previous year, when, at age 14, she had twice attempted to kill herself. Before slitting her wrists during one attempt, she had attacked her waterbed. The experience of seeing the water and her blood mix had been quite a high for her, she later told me. She was in the hospital less than six weeks for each attempt, securing her release on the grounds that counseling would continue at home. That stipulation proved useless because she would play along with the counselor, just as she had in the hospital. Annie told me that she'd researched depression by reading every book she could get her hands on. She knew exactly what the counselors were looking for, and she gave it to them. The school counselor had no answers for me except to be careful of getting too involved.
I knew that I was already too involved, but I didn't know how to get out of it. I began to evaluate my relationship with Annie, and one thing became obvious—I was being manipulated. The journal entries continued, but instead of responding to her specific complaints, I told her she needed professional help immediately. It didn't help. The journal entries and the phone calls continued into the next school year, when she was in my creative writing and composition classes.
On a peaceful January night some 18 months after I first met Annie, I was awakened by a pounding on my front door. I turned on the outside light to find Annie. She looked like a streetwalker. As she shuffled into the living room to talk, I could smell both booze and marijuana.
Could I admit that I had actually told a student to kill herself? What kind of teacher was I?
Being awakened at 3 a.m. did not put me in a good mood, and Annie could sense it. She wanted to know whether I was upset. Trying to control my temper, I muttered a simple no. Annie began with her usual declaration of being misunderstood by friends and family. I listened. At 4:30, she wanted to know why I was so quiet. I told her that I was tired.
"You bitch!" she yelled. "You don't care about me! You're just like the rest of them!"
It was at that point that I lost my composure. I was ready to kick her butt out into the snow. Trying to remain calm, I told her we had to continue the discussion later that morning. I showed her to the spare room and put my own children in bed with my husband and me. I feared for their safety.
Before driving Annie home, I told her she'd have to find professional help or we could not continue to be friends. She promised she would. That Monday, she gave me a letter apologizing for her behavior. I saw it as a sincere attempt to get better. She started to see another counselor. We were making progress.
It didn't last. The phone calls continued, and early one April morning, I had simply had too much. After an hour of Annie's complaining and her threats to "end it all," I very calmly stated, "You seem to think that your life stinks. Go ahead, kill yourself."
Silence on the other end.
I added, "Please write a will and leave me all of your artwork and writings. I happen to think that you are a very creative individual. But if life is so rotten, go ahead and kill yourself."
More silence. She whispered, "So long," and then, complete silence.
What the hell had I just done? I didn't know what to do next. Should I call the police? Call her mom? Call Annie back? Should I call my principal? Could I admit that I had actually told a student to kill herself? What kind of teacher was I?
That had to be the worst weekend of my life. Every time the phone rang, I feared it was a fellow teacher informing me of Annie's suicide. If it happened, it would be my fault.
Monday morning rolled around, and Annie walked into my composition class, expressionless. She didn't act interested, nor did she look disinterested. She was just there. From then on, Annie came to class and did her work. I treated her the same way I treated the other students, and when she handed in her journal, I commented only on what she wrote in response to my prompts. She no longer used the journal for her personal thoughts, and I was relieved.
Our relationship was nonexistent during her senior year. She didn't take any of my classes. Whenever I saw her in the hallways, I would say hello and she would respond with a curt greeting, but that was it. I was too scared to expand on any type of contact with Annie for fear of being overtaken by her demands.
It has been 14 years since Annie graduated from high school. I frequently remember her when I look into the eyes of some of my current students. I know there are many Annies out there who need a friend. There are years when I still get too wrapped up with certain kids, but never to the degree that I did with Annie, to the point of neglecting my other students and my own children. With age and experience, I've realized that I don't have to give up my own mental health to let students know I truly care.
Vol. 14, Issue 7, Pages 46-48Published in Print: May 1, 2003, as Last Call