I thought I was changing her life, but she may have changed mine.
“I’m Thinking of Committing Suicide”
After she sheepishly entered my office and sat down in the chair opposite me, I gave her my plagiarism spiel. Earlier that morning, I had returned her homework assignment with the grade of zero, as she had misrepresented another’s ideas as her own. She didn’t make excuses or defend herself. She accepted the consequences. However, she was clearly anxious; fidgeting, avoiding eye contact, struggling to find the right words. After the conversation had seemed to run its course, she provided no indication that she was ready to leave. She continued to sit; as if she had something else to say. I could sense that something was slightly amiss.
After waiting a moment, I gently asked some vague questions about her semester and how things were going. She slowly revealed some details about her life; many of which I forget today, but I will always remember the moment she uttered the word “suicide.” More specifically, that she had been thinking of committing suicide.
Discovering a Life’s Purpose
The walls, both literal and figurative, seemed to disappear around us. The structures between student and teacher crumbled. The walls of the room seemed to evaporate. I saw nothing but her. We were just two people. There was no space. There was no time. There was no future or past; only the present. There was no place to be; classes, meetings, and plans; none of it mattered. I felt a singularity of focus and energy that I have rarely experienced in my life; like my true essence had come alive; my purpose for existence revealed. In that moment, everything else disappeared. I was there only for her. She was a human being and she needed help.
While my primary concern was her safety, I was overwhelmed by her bravery; revealing her desperation and showing her vulnerability. I felt a great responsibility to delicately handle her trust and faith. I was just handed a fragile gift; her unveiled and exposed soul.
Over the next hour, I softly leaned her toward the free mental health services offered by the school. She reached out to those services later in the day and I hope she found them helpful. Right or wrong, we never had another personal conversation again. However, she did continue with school, graduated, eventually moved to another city, and continued with her life.
The Student who Taught Me
While I have lost track of her story, I have not forgotten that singular hour in my office. In many ways, it was one of the most surprising, powerful, and influential moments of my teaching career. Years later I am still eternally grateful; the moment as indelible today as it was the day it occurred, and I am still garnering powerful lessons from the experience.
Her courage exposed and reminded me of our shared and common humanity; that the powerful energies that bind and connect us are far more powerful than the forces that separate and isolate. We all yearn to love and be loved; to feel safe, peaceful, and joy, and we have all suffered; experienced loss. In baring her soul, I saw my own; I could see everyone’s. I saw our commonalities.
Rediscovering Our Shared Humanity
Within the depths of our own presumed weaknesses, that we try so desperately to conceal, lies our connective emotional tissue. The more we can find the courage to be vulnerable and reveal our shadows, the more we clear a secret path to a world that can reconnect with its true nature; with a limitless capacity for love and compassion. In meeting vulnerability with empathy and acceptance, we create ripples in a pond by our example; spreading from teacher to student; student to friend; friend to family, family to neighbors, neighbors to neighboring city, city to neighboring counties, counties to neighboring states, states to neighboring countries; continuing until all artificial walls and borders, the same ones that crumbled in my office years ago, evaporate under the universal truth of our shared humanity.