Sunday, December 14, 2008

An Avoidable Tragedy

by Ruth

The strange thing was, when I got Christina’s text saying, “suicide,” I wasn’t even surprised. For a few more seconds, I kept imputing grades into the computer, taking advantage of the time before the truth sunk in. I knew that once reality hit, there would be no more escape.

After 15 seconds of calm, I rushed to call Christina. The first impulse always seems to be a desire for information. It’s like if I can just know everything, maybe it will be easier to handle. But the truth comes in slowly in theses cases, mainly filtering down to us through frightened student rumors.

The suicide happened Saturday morning around 10am. A girl jumped from the twelfth floor of the classroom building. Some students were around who saw her fall. Many others, studying in classrooms, came running at the sound of the screams and saw the body on the ground before the police were able to hurry in and take it away.

For a long time, we didn’t know who the student was. The face was unrecognizable after the fall. Students began a count, calling all their classmates to make sure everyone was still okay. One student said, “I had called all my classmates four times, but my teacher said, ‘Call them again.’” We called our students to make sure they were all okay. It was the weekend, though, and many students had gone home, making it difficult to really know.

This happened in Yangzhou just two years ago. I think in some ways it is easier for me to respond this time. I am not so angry at the school for trying to keep things quiet because I know that’s how it works. The school will already lose lots of face; they are trying to minimize the loses. I am not so shocked because I know it doesn't just happen at other schools. But still, I’ve found it hard to think about anything else.

This past thirty-six hours, I feel I know a little bit of Paul’s meaning when he said, “pray continually.” Most of my prayers are unformed, just a weight of the heart, a cry of the soul. I can’t stop thinking about my students. They have just come face-to-face with something they try so hard to avoid: death. They have seen it so close, and in someone just like them. They are shocked, frightened, grieving, and traumatized. One of my students wrote me an email saying,

“When I saw the girl lying on the ground full of blood, I was so scared and shocked. I had no words to say, but sadness and fear…All of my classmates and roommates were very silent in our room today.”

Who really knows how to deal with suicide? I feel that these students especially have no idea of how to cope. Suicide is still a taboo topic, and being open about what you are thinking is hardly encouraged. Many are now haunted by horrible images.

On Saturday night, several students came over and talked to us. They were shaken, frightened, and sad. One student said there is a counselor at the school, but the other student said, “Yes, but would you really ever go to see them? People would think you were strange.” I have had several students say they could not share their struggles with their roommates for fear they would laugh at them. We talked for a while and then played Dominoes, which was a welcome distraction. We took a few minutes to lift up the girls before they left, and I think they were really touched by that.

The night was a restless one. Kevin found some articles online and what they thought was a suicide note in the form of a poem. Exhaustion struggled with emotions we still don’t know how to express. Every hour, the tragedy seems to become more real, and I remember someone else who is affected. What about the family, who may have just lost their only child? What about the roommates and classmates? What about the students who are already feeling hopeless and alone?

Sunday morning, we found out the girl was an English major, a junior student. We still don’t know which student, though. None of us taught girl, but we know a number of the other juniors. Had we smiled at her on campus or rushed by? Had she stopped in to talk with us at office hours? Who were her friends? Did anybody know what was going on inside her mind?

Sunday afternoon we walked around the campus, talking to the Father. We saw some of the girl’s classmates, who were still smiling. They probably didn’t know yet.

Tomorrow we will see our classes, and what will we say to them? I don’t think they realize how much I care about them, that I came to China for them. I want to tell them they can talk to me, but some won’t feel comfortable. I want them to treasure life and search for greater meaning. I want them to share their burdens and not try to hide their sorrows. I want them to open their eyes and see each other, to see what is really going on. I want them to know peace instead of fear, hope instead of despair, acceptance instead of tremendous pressure, and life instead of surrounding death. I know I won’t find the right words, so I hope they’ll be able to see it in my eyes.

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