With distance, some things are easier to take—and some things are harder.
James Clementi’s open letter in Out magazine brought back the suicide of his brother Tyler in such a heartbreaking way it was harder to read than the initial news reports of Tyler’s death. And Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s feature on the rash of suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin school district, published in this week’s Rolling Stone, revisits a tragedy most of us were hoping to put past us.
After school, Sam would encourage Brittany to join her in privately mocking their tormentors, and the girls would parade around Brittany’s house speaking in Valley Girl squeals, wearing bras over their shirts, collapsing in laughter. They’d become as close as sisters in the year since Sam had moved from North Dakota following her parents’ divorce, and Sam had quickly become Brittany’s beacon. Sam was even helping to start a Gay Straight Alliance club, as a safe haven for misfits like them, although the club’s progress was stalled by the school district that, among other things, was queasy about the club’s flagrant use of the word “gay.”
…Brittany admired Sam’s courage, and tried to mimic her insouciance and stoicism. So Brittany was bewildered when one day in November 2009, on the school bus home, a sixth-grade boy slid in next to her and asked quaveringly, “Did you hear Sam said she’s going to kill herself?”
Brittany considered the question. No way. How many times had she seen Sam roll her eyes and announce, “Ugh, I’m gonna kill myself” over some insignificant thing? “Don’t worry, you’ll see Sam tomorrow,” Brittany reassured her friend as they got off the bus. But as she trudged toward her house, she couldn’t stop turning it over in her mind. A boy in the district had already committed suicide just days into the school year – TJ Hayes, a 16-year-old at Blaine High School – so she knew such things were possible. But Sam Johnson? Brittany tried to keep the thought at bay. Finally, she confided in her mother.
“This isn’t something you kid about, Brittany,” her mom scolded, snatching the kitchen cordless and taking it down the hall to call the Johnsons. A minute later she returned, her face a mask of shock and terror. “Honey, I’m so sorry. We’re too late,” she said tonelessly as Brittany’s knees buckled; 13-year-old Sam had climbed into the bathtub after school and shot herself in the mouth with her own hunting rifle. No one at school had seen her suicide coming.
No one saw the rest of them coming, either.
Like Sam, three other of the nine students who killed themselves in the Minnesota district between 2009 and 2011 were either gay or perceived to be.
“LGBTQ students don’t feel safe at school,” says Anoka Middle School for the Arts teacher Jefferson Fietek, using the acronym for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning. “They’re made to feel ashamed of who they are. They’re bullied. And there’s no one to stand up for them, because teachers are afraid of being fired.”
As soon as the story came to light, sociologists and media types starting using words like “suicide contagion area,” as if there was a meningitis outbreak. But meningitis isn’t caused by a reactionary school policy like the one that barred teachers from discussing homosexuality in any useful context.
Erderly’s piece is truly commendable, both in its understanding of the larger political issues and players and its on-the-ground details of the kids facing humiliation and abuse in Anoka-Hennepin. Pick up a copy (yes, an actual physical copy of the magazine) and read it today.
One last thought: Many, if not most, of you reading this don’t have children of your own. And yet your taxes go to pay for the schools in the neighborhood. We think that gives us as much right to know what’s going on in those temples of learning as someone with a student there. Check up on your area schools: Do they have a GSA? Do they have an anti-bullying curriculum? Too many of us are hesitant to engage with young people because of old fears and prejudices. It’s time for us bury that fear and get involved—or it will be another young gay person we bury instead.
Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Minneapolis Star