Thursday, October 05, 2006

When Idealism meets Reality

I have always been a strong supporter of teachers taking risks in their book selections. I sincerely believe that hiding reality from students is a big mistake and that it's better for them to have the opportunity to discuss hard topics in a safe environment and in the abstract. While it is my wish for them that they never actually have to deal with things like incest, date rape, or suicide in their real lives, I think they are better prepared for those things if they have met up with them in a book and have had an opportunity to talk through different ways of handling traumatic experiences.

I also "know" that fiction allows students to explore the philosophies and views of different historical time periods in context and when the different departments work together, suddenly the books you're reading in English make sense when put together with what was happening at that same time in history and it all becomes more meaningful.

That's all great in the abstract.

It suddenly takes on a whole new slant when a 16 year old comes to you and says his life is meaningless and has no purpose and the only reason he's still alive is that he's pretty sure suicide would hurt. During the three hours spent in the emergency room waiting for a psych eval he then reveals to his father that they have been studying existentialism and suicide in The French Lieutenant's Woman and it "got him thinking about the futility of it all."

Do I think the book caused the boy's depression? No, I don't really think depression works that way. I do, however, believe that teachers need to consider the emotional state of adolescents when making their choices. I'm not even saying don't read a particular book because of the issues. I am saying it's crucial to anticipate the possible reactions of the students and discuss them during class, not just leave them wallowing in despair. Say it right out loud: "This book might leave you feeling sad and depressed because it hits a nerve. Here are some people you can talk to: the teacher, the school counselor, your pastor, your parents."

When a teen suicide becomes public knowledge, parents and teachers become more alert to the signs and symptoms of suicidal ideation in the school population, knowing that the "success" of one student can act as a trigger for others. It suddenly becomes real and possible and those who are vulnerable to the idea may start talking about it or even try it. Does this mean you should try to keep students from finding out or talking about what happened? Of course not. It means that you have to be very aware of the possible fall out so you can identify the students who need help and get it for them.

We need to remember that books can be an equally powerful catalyst for action. When students read about rape or incest or suicide in books, they can find the courage within themselves to speak out, to ask for help, to believe that they, too, can overcome their obstacles. Parents, teachers, and counselors need to work together so that they can be aware and ready for the possible fall out because sometimes the cry for help is expressed in a very scary and negative way - "If I weren't afraid it would hurt, I would have killed myself already." It's easy to say "They should never have read that horrible book," but if they hadn't, he might not have asked for help in time. The pivotal event might have been something so personal and immediate that he wouldn't have had the time or the rationality to walk down those stairs and say "I can't get these thoughts out of my head and I'm scared."

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