"Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed"- John Lennon
People never cease to amaze me with their capacity for ignorance. The things they say and do can leave a person dumbfounded and speechless, and just when you think it couldn't get any worse, one of them rises up and does something to elevate ignorance to a new high. In fact, just last week, Jacki, Peyton's mother called to tell me that Anytown Middle School*, where Peyton was a student at the time of his death, had a small memorial garden at the school to honor students at the school that had passed away. However, when she approached John Smith* the principal of Anytown Middle School about placing a memorial stone in the garden to honor Peyton, Mr. Smith told her "No," because Peyton had completed suicide, and he was worried that this may encourage other students to take their lives in order to be memorialized because research shows that it will. After several moments of silence, and once I was able to pick my jaw up off the ground, I asked her if she was kidding, had Mr. Smith really said that? Sadly, he had.
I was stunned. I thought of calling the school myself to speak to Mr. Smith. After all, I have a litany of profanity at my disposal, and after hearing what he had said, I was not only ready to use it, but to be creative and use new and exotic combinations as well. Once I realized that would be counter productive, and having ruled out the three hour drive to speak to Mr. Smith in person, cooler heads prevailed. Jacki asked me to hold off for a few days so that she could once again speak to Mr. Smith. After she spoke to him again, he informed her that ALL research indicates that memorials at school are bad, despite his school having a memorial garden on campus.
I was curious about this research that Mr. Smith used to say that memorials are bad, and that memorializing a student that completed suicide would lead to more suicides. Keep in mind that I have taught for 27 years, with 21 of those having taught English. That means I have taught the research process numerous times, and that thanks to advances in technology, the research paper is no longer the daunting monster it used to be, but a streamlined process. What I have discovered over the years is that you can find two sides to both issues. For example, I have found that there are two sides to smoker's rights, the legalization of all narcotics, or even the good things Hitler and the Nazis did in Germany. So it comes as no surprise that there is research to support Mr. Smith's claims, but as our media has shown, you can the that material out of context and use it to prove any point you want. For example Mr. Smith is worried that allowing a memorial stone for Peyton would lead to other students taking their lives. This is what is known as the Werther Effect, term coined in 1974 by David Phillips in American Sociological Review (Schuurman). Phillips believed that a highly publicized suicide may become a role model for other suicides, especially among adolescents and young adults. This seems to be a reasonable concern for Mr. Smith and other school administrators. After all, they have the monumental task of providing a safe learning environment for all of their students. Perhaps Mr. Smith is afraid of glamorizing suicide or making Peyton a role model. Maybe Mr. Smith is worried that should he allow a memorial stone, and another student thought it would be great if they had one too, so they take their life too. As a result of that death, both Mr. Smith and the school district are held liable.
However, what Mr. Smith didn't take into consideration is that in 1984 I.M.Wasserman, concluded that not all stories about suicide deaths lead to an increase in suicide deaths, but only stories about the suicide deaths of celebrities or other highly publicized deaths. Furthermore, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) has determined “the role of imitation or contagion is less well-established than other risk factors” especially noting depressive illness and history of past suicide attempts (Schuurmann). In fact, there is not a single documented account of a suicide occurring because a previous student received “recognition” through a memorial service, and there are multiple situations where cluster suicides have occurred when no school memorial services were held (Schuurmann). If no memorial is allowed, it will not stop the students from talking about what happened. Instead, to the students it will show that the adults are afraid and need to control the narrative. It makes the students no less dead. It also provides no productive channels for honoring the deceased. It also tells any student that is dealing with suicidal ideation to keep your issues to yourself, we (the school) aren't going to talk about it. Then again, that is just my research.
Most of all Mr. Smith, by not allowing a memorial stone for my son, you are devaluing his life to me and to those that knew him. Peyton was a living breathing person that died. By not allowing that stone, you are telling me that my son's death meant nothing. Do any of the memorial markers in that garden represent a student that died of cancer or some other horrible illness? Are you telling me that any of those kids was more important and noble than my son? Do you realize that Peyton died from an illness as well? His was an illness in his brain. One that convinced him that he couldn't be happy. One that told him the world would be better off without him. One that allowed him to believe that his mother and I would be happier without him around. he didn't ask for this disease any more than some one asks for cancer or diabetes. Not only that, but any other child in the same place as Peyton is now actually discouraged from seeking help as you have implied to them that their death would be meaningless.
Jacki and I are not asking for a ceremony or to interrupt the learning process. We simply want to honor our son in the same manner that the school has honored other students. Hopewell Middle School planted a tree in Peyton's memory just a few months after his passing. They invited Jacki and I,as well as some of Peyton's friends, to speak . It served as a teachable moment for the school, and isn't that why we are in education for? Not all lessons are in a text book. Most of all, Peyton was memorialized in the Anytown Middle School year book at the end of the 2014-2015 school year.
I understand that this may not be the popular decision to make, but what is popular is not always right. You can't pretend that one of your students made a decision that took his life any more than you can deny that his mother and I still grieve his loss. I went through the board policies and the student/parent handbook, and there is nothing prohibiting a memorial stone, especially when it has been allowed for others. A rock with a name is not asking too much, is it?