I’ve got the news on, and I’m only half listening as I straighten up the coffee table–newspapers, school worksheets, a remote and a couple of toys–and there’s something said about a 15-year old girl who committed suicide.
It’s got the rep, it’s got the pep that always keeps it on top.
A 15-year-old girl. Oh, dear God. Faces come to mind. Kids I taught. More recently, two nephews. Teen suicide is heartbreaking. What were they thinking? Life is hard on the Reservation, but they really didn’t think they were going to die, did they? They wanted help. They wanted . . .
It’s got lots of fighting spirit. Let’s all cheer it.
Wait. They said Massachusetts. They said . . . I glance at the screen, and there’s a school bus rolling past. Does that sign say South Hadley? It does. That’s my high school! That’s my beloved Alma Mater!
And I tune in. It’s a story about mean girls and misfits. The newcomer vs. the established clique. The girl with the funny accent vs. the kids who all talk alike, dress alike, wear their hair the same way. I know that story. But suicide? At South Hadley High?
I can’t get to the school web site. It’s down. But it’s not hard to find an AP picture like the one on the left. The first picture is from my high school year blook. Senior year, Class of 1966. Yes, we had color in those days, but this was our idea of artsy. I was on the yearbook staff. I was into everything. Couldn’t be a cheerleader–couldn’t do a spread eagle–but I was more the student council-, Gateway (yearbook), Spotlight (school paper), debater-type. I loved high school.
I had been a misfit many times in elementary school, back when my family had moved around with the Air Force. I’d made my peace with that role, enough so that when I eventually went to the Reservation to teach, I didn’t mind being in the minority. Of course, I was an adult. I was pretty comfortable and secure in my own skin. And knew that I could drive a few miles in any direction and be part of the majority again.
I have wonderful memories of high school, but in hindsight, I understand that I lived on the easy side of many of the changes that were taking place. De facto segregation existed in South Hadley back then. Our only non-white student came from Ethiopia with a South Hadley resident who had just returned from the Peace Corps. I didn’t think we had much of a problem with race relations. This was Massachusetts, after all. People could live anywhere they chose to live, right?
There was a war going on in another part of the world, but I didn’t have to worry too much. I was a girl, and girls didn’t get drafted. If they enlisted, they didn’t fight. They didn’t fight at home, either. If you were in with an in crowd, maybe you said a mean thing about a girl on the outside once in a while, but not to her face. You stuck with your friends, your kind, be they nerds or jocks, collegiates or continentals. Life was good. I was about to graduate from one of the top 3 high schools in a state known for high educational standards. I was headed for one of the best colleges in the country. I know there were some lonely kids in my class, but I wasn’t one of them. I had made my way, and one day I would help my generation save the world.
Your sons and daughters will be ever true to you.
Well, we tried. And many of us Boomers will keep on trying until we keel over, but we’re going to collect a lot of Social Security and Medicare before we do. Still, we’ve learned a few things. We remember “the good old days.” You don’t want to go back to excluding people. You want to be progressive about getting everybody on board the love train. “People of the world, join in,” we sang. And mostly we meant it. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be mean girls. I don’t know how we’re going to overcome the problems the Internet poses–the ease with which we can spread rumors and taunt and tease. But we will keep trying. We keep our good memories, but we will be realistic about them. We won’t forget that some of us were more privileged than others and still are, but that the more the privileges are extended, the better off the world will be.
Each of us has the capacity for meanness, and when we have a posse, we can sometimes somehow find pleasure in exercising that capacity. I know I’ve done it. Instinct for some kind of self-preservation, I guess. But we spend the better part of our lives trying to rise above self. We want better for our kids. My parents had their prejudices, but I know now that they made a conscious effort not to extend many of those prejudices into the next generation. We have to follow that kind of lead. We have to. Sometimes tormented people take their own lives. Sometimes they they lash out and take ours.
After all is said and done,
You’re the one and only one.
South Hadley, three cheers for you!
My heart goes out to to my Alma Mater and everyone there. You’ll make it better. I know you will.