A kid I didn’t know committed suicide last night. I’m not sure exactly what happened. I heard from a fellow teacher that he was reported for possessing drugs and that when he was taken to the office and questioned, he bolted out the door, ran to his car, drove off, and shot himself. I heard in the halls that yeah, he had drugs, but he had been taken to the office for posting a picture of a gun on his Snapchat. I heard in the halls that no, there weren’t any drugs. I read an article online that said he went out in a blaze of glory, twelve cops in hot pursuit down Asheville Highway until a bullet to the brain ended the chase. That one is my personal favorite. They say the news is fake. I don’t know what to believe.
I know his sister; she is in my first block. Her name is Kami*, and several weeks ago she pulled her chair close to my desk and whispered her worries about her brother: he was becoming distant, withdrawn—he’d even attempted to run away from home, but she caught him packing and talked him out of it. I can’t remember his name. It was Brad or Brock or Billy. It was B something. He was the oldest. I frown because I should be able to remember, but I can’t. Kami isn’t here today.
I look over at the desk in the second column, third from the front. Dante usually sits there, the junior in my sophomore English class, with his ripped jeans and his receding hairline at sixteen and the cuts up and down his arms. They were beginning to fade, and yesterday I’d thought to myself how the scars were looking like ridiculously long arm hairs. He isn’t here today, and his empty desk seemed emptier than all the other empty desks, where half of the students saw an opportunity to capitalize on tragedy and get a day out of school.
Once again, I’m struck with an overwhelming worry that something bad will happen to Dante. Or, rather, that he will do something bad to himself. I glance over at Joy, his ex-girlfriend, and Jace, his ex-best friend, who had somehow found his way into the seat next to her. I couldn’t help hating them for being the reason that Dante cries every day in class. I think about calling Jace out and making him go back to his seat, but I feel a pang of guilt for having such negative emotions toward my students. I shouldn’t have favorites, even though all teachers have favorites. If they tell you they don’t, they’re lying to your face. I turn my head and pretend I don’t see Jace and Joy holding hands.
I smell a burst of strawberries and I know someone hit a Juul. These kids are impossible to catch. If they applied their ingenuity to enterprises other than how to not get caught breaking arbitrary rules, I wouldn’t worry so much about the future of our country. I think about standing up and making a loop around the classroom because current educational theory suggests that proximity discourages misbehavior. I don’t move. I already know it was Collin and even if I’d seen him I would’ve pretended not to. Maybe it’s naive of me, but I’d rather they vape in school than skip and get stoned on something harder. At least this way they will learn how to use a semicolon in the process.
The minutes tick by. The official email said not to teach today, so I’m not teaching. Laila, the girl who wears crop tops every day even though it breaks dress code, is in the corner showing people the dead kid’s last Snapchat on repeat. I can hear his voice from across the room saying he’d gone too far to ever go back now. I wasn’t sure what he meant, and I think I should tell Laila to put her phone away, but I feel like that would be insensitive and so again I turn a blind eye.
Anna, the sweet redheaded girl who loves Jesus and often finds herself unwittingly in the middle of way too many love triangles, walks up to my desk with tears in her eyes and asks if she can go see a counselor. I nod and she walks out of the room. There are an abundance of preachers and counselors in the building today. Later they’re going to have therapy dogs. The high school across town sent donuts for the teachers this morning. I’d never considered donuts the pastry of choice for consolation, but I suppose it works just as good as any. I got one but it sits on my desk untouched because I feel guilty for not knowing the kid and taking the sympathy donut.
My eyes fall back onto the empty desk where Dante should have been sitting, and I wonder why he isn’t in school today. I think about last week, the last time he missed school, how Anna had pulled me out of the classroom and showed me the text messages where Dante told her he was going to kill himself. I radioed the vice principal and the school, working with a clinic, put him on suicide watch for over five hours, meaning under observation. I’d never been more scared at work than that day, thinking that they wouldn’t find him in time. Now, staring at his desk, dozens of headlines and statistics about copycat suicides come to mind. The familiar hurricane of worry begins brewing in my gut. My boyfriend says I worry too much, that I worry too much about the little things and about things that are outside my control. He’s right, of course, but he never offers me any advice on how to stop. My mom says I inherited the worry gene from her. My friends say it’s because I care too much. Whatever the reason, within five minutes a migraine is throbbing behind my eyes and warm nausea is rising up my throat. I swallow it down and wait for the bell to ring.
Second block comes and goes and still I can barely take my eyes off of that desk in the second row, third from the front. At lunch I walk into the girls’ bathroom because we’ve been asked to keep an eye on the stalls to make sure no one is writing suicide notes on the walls while they pee. An anti-vaping sign stares down at me, boldly declaring: YOU CAN WIPE YOUR BUTT, BUT YOU CAN’T WIPE YOUR LUNGS. I can’t help rolling my eyes. No wonder these kids vape.
I return to my room and sit at my desk, my eyes settling again on the empty desk. The list of things I should be doing files through my head. I need to grade their argumentative essays. I need to make several practice EOC tests. I need to review the SPED paperwork for Charlotte, the girl who is obsessed with softball and weightlifting. I need to call my gynecologist and make an appointment. I close my eyes and lay my head down on my desk and do not eat lunch, do not call my mother to check in, do not do anything but try not to think about the kid who killed himself. I fail.
The bell rings for third block to begin too soon. It is my worst block, the one where half the students are sociopaths and the other half are normal kids who must’ve really pissed off the guidance counselors to get put in this class. Jordan, the tall boy who tells me inappropriate things and protects his hat like it’s made of solid gold, bursts into the room and sees my head is still down. He calls to his buddies that I’m asleep as I’m lifting my head. I hurry out into the hallway before one of the vice principals hears him and comes to check.
Class drags by slowly, and when the last bell rings I smile wide and tell the students to have a wonderful day, even though it’s pointless. The day was ruined before yesterday slept. My eyes land once more on the desk in the second row, third from the front. I walk over and lower myself into it, my fingers gently tracing the crude lettering where someone has carved the word FUCK into the polished desktop. I sit and think, not about the one who is gone but about the one who is still here. I sit and hope that I did enough. I sit and know that I didn’t.
*All names have been changed
Sam Campbell is a writer and teacher from Tennessee. She earned her English MA from East Tennessee State University, where she was the editor in chief of the Mockingbird. She serves Arkansas International as social media editor, and holds editorial positions at Orison and The Great Lakes Review. She is the fiction editor and co-founder of Black Moon Magazine. She publishes across all genres; her work appears or is forthcoming in October Hill, MORIA, Tennessee’s Emerging Poets Anthology, and E.ratio Postmodern Poetry, among others. Her awards include, but are not limited to, the 2019 James Still Prize for Short Fiction and 2019 Jesse Stuart Prize for Young Adult Writing. She is currently a first-year fiction MFA candidate at the University of Arkansas.
Rebecca Taubman Schnitzer is a painter based in Dallas who mostly works with acrylics. She has work on display online at Saatchi Art. Her paintings will be exhibited at Dallas Market Hall this fall.