Last night, we had some terrible news. Yesterday, our 6 year old son’s teacher, Juan, left school early – he went home, jumped from the 5th floor and died. The school is closed today. Everyone is in shock.
And all I have is questions.
How does an adult make sense of someone’s suicide, let alone a child? Was he so desperately unhappy? Lonely? Imbalanced? Unloved? Unfulfilled? Angry? Frustrated? Did he need a ‘reason’? Was it a call for help? A statement? A communication? Was it a negation? Was life so meaningless? So pointless? So unbearable?
What on earth was going on in his head? What thoughts does someone just about to self-destruct have in their mind? Were there chemical imbalances? Was he depressed? Did he have some awful news? Did an event trigger his actions? Or was it something that built up over a period of time? A lifetime? Was it inevitable? Would anything have made any difference? Could anyone or anything have helped him, persuaded him? Where did life fail him? What went so very wrong?
When did he think about the impact his actions would have on those closest to him? He must have, surely? His fellow teachers – a small, seemingly supportive group of about 6 or 7 teachers in the infantil part of the school? His 40 or so colleagues in the rest of the school? His friends? His family? His neighbours? The people who found his body?
And of course, his children, surely he must have thought about them? His pupils, his class of 20 five and six year olds, who’ve each developed a relationship with him over the course of every school day for the last two years. What made him pick yesterday? A Tuesday, midweek, with exactly three weeks to go until the end of term, the end of the school year? 21 days from now, those children would have already said their goodbyes and ‘thanks for teaching us so well for the last two years’ and have been on summer vacation. Maybe that would have been easier to deal with for them, maybe not? What compelled him to act now? What will the next three weeks be like for them? Will there be gossip and rumours and huge exagerations and embellishments to the story, as many six year olds are prone to do about even the most mundane of things, let alone a real death? What Happened to Juan? What stories, what explanations will circulate round the school?
What impact will it all have on them? On the rest of their lives? On their attitudes to life? To death? To relationships? Juan was a well-liked, even loved teacher. He’s been a role model for some of them, especially of course, the boys. He consistently showed intelligence, compassion, fairness and he always managed a smile and a fond ‘porta bien’ at the end of a morning when we asked him how the morning had been. He always had time for them. Not only that, but he was a fantastic teacher – over the last two years with Juan, Hal, our son, has gained confidence in just about every direction – his language skills, his arithmetic, his writing, his reading. What am I saying? Juan actually taught him to read and write, to count and to enjoy learning. We’ve often said that one of the best things about being here in this particular part of Spain is the school, and a large proportion of that belief was based on Juan and his excellent skills as a teacher.
What about us then, as parents? Did we miss something in translation? Why didn’t we notice something was wrong? Are we so blindly trusting when everything seemed to be OK, that it was OK? Was that what we wanted to believe – everything’s fine here? Did we fail him too? Could we have done anything to help? Said anything that would have made any difference? What did Juan need?
Three weeks ago, I took a birthday cake into school to celebrate Hal’s birthday. Juan was a star, as always – he’d made a birthday crown for Hal and his classmate, Yedra, who was also celebrating her birthday. We sang happy birthday in Spanish and English for both of them and they got to blow out candles –double cake all round! It was lovely. Juan ran the party in such a way that all the kids got cake, juice, party balloons and had fun in the class, then got to run it all off outside in the patio straight afterwards. As we were clearing up, he mentioned that in September Hal will be going up to the ‘primera’ – the first class in the big school, rather than infantil. I asked him what he would do then and he shrugged, smiled and said – I’ll be here, of course, teaching the little ones – it’s what I do! He seemed fine and to be genuinely enjoying himself. And when I picked Hal up from school later that day, Juan had collated all the birthday pictures the other kids had drawn for him into a little book. It was a wonderfully thoughtful memento to give a child of their key milestones in their childhood…
And what should we tell them now? What’s our story going to be about Juan? Didn’t I say in my last post that nothing has any meaning save the meaning we give it? We get to choose the meaning – but in this case the meaning we choose affects a six year old who’s lost someone very close, someone they trust, someone they respect. We have to pick the right meaning don’t we? Can we?
How can we explain Juan killed himself and that’s OK, sometimes people choose to do that? It isn’t OK. Not in my book anyway. I choose life. It’s one of my values. It’s what makes me tick. It’s why I’m a coach and an artist and a mother and a lover and a friend and a daughter and a sister and a whole host of other things and a human being. We are all connected. I want my sons to choose life too.
What if we say Juan had an accident and let’s just remember the good things about him? Then I lie to protect my children, which doesn’t protect them at all, because then an adult in a position of trust will have broken the rule we’ve been reinforcing since Hal told his first little lie – we’ve told him over and over that it’s always better to tell the truth, because people will know you’re lying anyway and it won’t make you feel good about yourself in the long run. What is the truth though?
What we say Juan killed himself and no-one knows why, and wait for Hal’s response rather than give our own slant on things? Support him and be there for him and trust that we’ll know what to say when he asks the questions.
How will the school cope? The community? What lead will they take? In a predominantly Roman Catholic culture, is suicide still taboo? What will the other parents do? What will they tell their kids, who’ll in turn tell ours? What kind of funeral will there be? Should we go? Say goodbye? Close this chapter? Acknowledge it?
Will it be OK if we leave flowers at the school gate today?
Who for? Juan? What good are flowers to a person who’s chosen to leave this world already? Didn’t he know while he was still alive that he was loved so much? Isn’t that enough? Didn’t he love himself? Maybe send a message to the Universe then – the universal consciousness – just send love?
Is it better to show your own grief around a child, or be there for them and put yours to one side? Do they need us to show strength and adult leadership, or our emotions and feelings – or a combination of both? How will we cope as a family with shock and grief? How can we know how a child is coping? What associations will form in their minds? Will they blame themselves in any way for what happened? Will we be able to read the signs if they do? Appearances, as Juan has shown, can be very deceptive – who knows what’s going on in someone else’s mind?
Juan, I don’t know why you left in this way, but I hope you’re at peace now.
You’ll be deeply missed by many people still here trying to make sense of it all – life, the universe and everything. Maybe, in our own ways, it never will to any of us either.
In loving memory of Juan Alberto Torres Campos
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