Wednesday, December 12, 2007

place aversion

Today represents the one year mark since Shane's suicide. I am sitting in the library, a place many people had a tough time re-connecting with in the immediate aftermath of his death. You see, after moving through the halls, Shane took his own life right out in front of the library.

Place = Trigger = Aversion

It's understandable.

Recently, students began expressing a myriad of tribute ideas. Some planned to meet early in the AM and place a memorial. Some talked of not coming to school at all. Others wanted to organize a walk-out at the time of the shooting. And others...well, they silently went about their day to day existence. These are the students I worry about most.

Last year, as the Faculty Advisor for the school newspaper, the staff and I discussed the type of coverage to provide in our next issue.

No one wanted to "be the one" to write anything, to express an opinion that might come off as wrong, hurtful, or disrespectful. But everyone of them really, really felt that the school paper, by title and spirit, should 'chronicle' this monumental event in school history.

Near the end of the meeting, the editor asked if I would write an article. I protested:
"It's the student paper. Students should write for it."
"It's the school's newspaper. Anyone can write for it," she countered.
Sometimes students are quite argumentatively adroit. So here's the article that ran in the January '07 issue of The Chronicle:

One week after Shane’s suicide, I found myself embroiled in a verbal dispute with a student. As emotions escalated, I asked the student to step out into the hallway with me. My first sentence surprised not only the student, but also myself.

“I am angry, but I am not angry with you.”

The skeptical side of me likes to cling to the notion that alleged moments of clarity are bogus and contrived, but as I spoke the above sentence, I firmly believe that I had a much-needed, too-good-to-be-true moment of clarity.

We returned to the classroom and I apologized to the whole class, but I kept going. I told them that I was angry, livid, distraught, ravaged, hurt, and scarred.

Shane’s suicide hurt on levels that are as multi-faceted as a complex piece of machinery, but as I processed the untimely and violent passing of a student, I found myself torn apart over an unspoken, fractured relationship between me and my father.

On this day, my students were spared the details about my latent emotional issues pertaining to my family. As I left school that day, I knew I needed to talk to someone; preferably someone completely unbiased, but everyone in my cell phone contact list would most likely take on the obligatory role of Ken-sympathizer. The choice was clear: sit down with a psychiatrist.

To date, I have had eight sessions.

In the days following December 12, 2006, thoughts tumbled back to me, free-falling from my subconscious.

There was a time when bike rides were the norm. On Saturday mornings, a father would kiss his wife goodbye for the day. He would fasten two bikes to the back of his car and head down to Kelly Drive with his son riding alongside in the passenger seat.

They would start their day at the Falls River Bridge. They would make their way down the sinuous path that bordered the Schuylkill; father leading the way and son always right behind. That little eight year old boy would try to ride as close to the rear wheel of his father’s bike; a game requiring dexterity, but an action indicating a son’s admiration for his father.

I was highly unprepared for this repressed memory, and I had little time to process because another followed close behind.

Then there was a time when that son would stay at his father’s small one bedroom apartment on alternating weekends. At 6:30AM on Saturday mornings the father would wake his son and urge him to get ready for work.

At 7:15AM they would walk out the front door. They would turn the corner and pass two rusty bikes that leaned listlessly along the vinyl siding. By 7:45AM the father had his fourteen year old son at work. These rides would be taken in silence, but they would tear at the spirit of a teenage son who sat quietly mourning a lost connection once had with his father.

Why would these memories, twenty to thirty years old, return to me in the days following the traumatic event here at the high school?

I had no time to think, to make a connection or to put it all together; whatever it represented.

In fact, somewhere inside of me, there was a desire to avoid these memories.

How random, I thought, to have thoughts of my childhood and adolescent relationship with my father. There are many other things going on in my life that demand and deserve my attention. My wife, my children, friends, lessons and lacrosse, lacrosse, lacrosse seemed far more meaningful.

In the days following the suicide, we were all told that a varied and valid array of emotions may rise to the surface. We were also told that a varied and valid array of emotions may be buried. In the days that followed, the school community rallied together. Faculty, staff, and students demonstrated that our collective spirit can overcome even the most horrid event.

But some of us merely played along, exhibiting situational-appropriate emotional responses when needed. I did; because at the time, I could not process what really hurt me the most after December 12th. Seven days later, no longer able to maintain the guise, I sought help because I needed help.

Because I wanted help.

Because I want to help.

Parents emailed me. Students complimented me. A co-worker told me that I was brave.

Today, December 12th, the students seem extra quiet, the hallways extra-clean, and the memories, hard to suppress.

But today, December 12th, the students are here, the halls are clean, and memories keep us moving forward.


Farfisa said...

Ken, I've been thinking about this as the anniversary came up. My son is in the middle school, so reactions and emotions are not likely to surface (in him or his friends) unless there's a personal connection to Shane, but I can't imagine how you, your colleagues, and your students are feeling and walking and learning through the day today. Knowing that every time you meet someone's eyes, no matter what conversation that takes place out loud, there is something else on everyone's mind.

I walk past students, knowing how fragile they are, mothers with cancer, angry divorces, death of a father, friends dragging them down, trying as seniors to dig themselves out of their freshman-sophmore-junior year holes. What can we do? Be the best teachers we can be? Is that enough?

Danita Russell said...


Thank you for baring your soul with your readers. I can not imagine your hurt. God be with you, your family, and your school family as they deal with their flood emotions today.

Farfisa said...

I take it back; N said they were definitely talking about it in the MS...

So much for thinking he is sheltered.

blueyestars-JG Friedman said...

If you have a Facebook account, take a look at the group "In Loving Memory of Shane Halligan"
I am telling you this, so you can move ahead and be proud of your students at SHS.
Here are a few:

-It's been a year and I still can't believe that the boy in my french class, who would laugh so hard he shook and bounced up and down when someone would say something funny, is gone. It's been a tough year and we've all been through a lot. I hope wherever you are now, things are better. And I hope that everyone in Springfield continues to support one another as we continue to move forward.

-So I went to listen to my GodSpell CD today, only to realize I didnt bring it with me to school. I just wanted to hear you sing your song. Its become one of my favorites. I wish I could have heard your voice today. I miss you buddy. We all do...

-Rest In Peace Shane, I'll never forget anything. Today marked the end of the first year without you; the hardest year of any of us. We'll never forget you, and I hope that everything's fine wherever you are now.
-I was thinking about you today and I will never forget all the good times we had together walking home and in math. RIP.