Allen was an oversized kid, with curly reddish hair that like him, seemed a shade too loud. He was the first to volunteer when I asked a question but his ideas were never fully formed, his thoughts tripping over one another in haste. He was always apologizing for himself.
On the first day of class we were already well past introductions when we heard him outside in the hall swearing as he scanned the door numbers for the right room, huffing and puffing after running up the three flights of stairs.
Apologizing, he sat down. I was in the middle of a “fake biography” exercise devised by a student the semester before. We all had to say three things about ourselves: two truths and a lie. He liked jazz, he said, and was an engineering student and he was always late. “I’m never late,” he laughed. His laugh was contagious, free, and surprisingly high-pitched.
Expected reactions to suicide include: crying, depression, thinking in clichés (“He seemed so alive”), holding an image of him in my head like a backlit plastic Jesus.
Unexpected reactions: I am afraid to read his papers, the assignments he turned in before he died, which I’ve been carrying around for a week, shoved in the bottom of my bag. Wanting to do drugs, have casual sex, get another tattoo. Using his death as an excuse to eat junk food, drink more than usual, drink the same amount as usual. Although people tell me there was nothing I could have done, I ask myself what I could have done. I don’t know what to say when people ask me if he seemed depressed.
I cursed the darkness as I trudged toward Columbia’s Philosophy building that morning. Walking past a bronze copy of Rodin’s Thinker on the frosty lawn. The Thinker’s iron thighs were crossed for warmth and his little round butt perched gingerly in the marble slab. Poor Tom’s a’cold, I thought, shivering at his nakedness. It was February, two weeks into the spring semester. It was my first year of teaching, I was still a graduate student and unsure whether I was qualified to teach anyone else how to write. Rising before the sun to teach an early class only reinforced my image of myself as a creeping thing, a fraud. It was the second class I’d taught and so far my primary goal had been to keep my students awake for 75 minutes straight.
I opened the giant double doors, glasses fogging over in an appropriately teacherly fashion. I’d gone over how I’d introduce my plan for today’s class, like an actress reciting her lines. I had rehearsed my monologue hoping that it would keep my audience from mutiny. I’d written “(pause)” notes, lacunaes of time I’d either drown in or that would be filled by laughter. I’d vowed to channel my inner Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society. Like Williams’s character, and like the talented but slightly insane teacher in The History Boys I could only do this by teaching material I cared passionately about, cared enough about to jump up on the table and wave my arms around, to create some theater over:
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
“A metaphor,” I was explaining to a bleary group of 18-year-olds, “can start out as a simple image.” I quickly scanned the table. Eleven students and myself, gathered in the tiny room nicknamed “the fishbowl.” I stepped clumsily over student’s backpacks to reach the blackboard, where I drew a Pictionary-worthy sun with squiggly heat lines.
Arise fair sun, and kill the envious moon.
“But if the speaker lets the metaphor take hold of him, it can reveal his secret thoughts:”
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she
“Here, Romeo comes up with the rather amateur idea of comparing Juliet to the sun, but as he keeps elaborating on the metaphor something changes. He begins to imagine Juliet as more hot-blooded than the cold, virginal moon.”
Were they doodling, or did some of my Ivy League students just copy down my stupid drawing of a sun?
“He imagines Juliet stripping off her modest nightclothes.”
Be not her maid, since she is envious. Her vestal livery is but sick and green, And none but fools to wear it. Cast it off Oh it is my lady! It is my love!
“But a moment later he remembers, he’s just a horny guy pining outside a girl’s window.” (Pause.)
No laughter, not even a smile.
I went on, “It’s always bugged me that this speech is usually played as though Romeo’s rehearsed it in his car beforehand. Instead, it shows how art creates a double-exposure—the metaphor has an effect on him and it is this passion that drives him to take foolish chances, and sets the play in motion.”
The eleven teenagers watched me silently. I was performing and knew I was a fraud. I looked toward my best students and they responded by smiling encouragingly. They’re embarrassed for me, I thought. I felt dizzy, like coming down from a great height.
And one man in his time plays many parts.
Just because you love something doesn’t mean you can convince others to love it. I couldn’t explain how Shakespeare’s plays provided a running commentary in my head, how his words could be a touchstone to make sense of the world and of myself in it.
I erased the dopey sun and wrote out a free-writing assignment for the remainder of class. I looked wrathfully around the room. “Everyone who is absent will have to do this as homework.”
“You mean you don’t know?” whispered Rishi, a tiny, prematurely wrinkled girl who spoke with a heavy Turkish accent.
“You don’t know,” she stated when I didn’t respond.
Allen had hanged himself in his dorm on Saturday night.
DO NOT CRY, I thought. Crying now would be unfair to them. I needed to allow them space to feel something, now that they knew I knew. Now that they knew I hadn’t known, that I wasn’t an emotional cripple who could only communicate through the language of Shakespeare. Things settled back to earth and the students started talking.
One girl remembered that Allen gave her his seat at the table one day when she came in late, even later than he did. Another knew his roommate, and said this roommate was the one who’d found him. This brought down a flurry of questions seeking the reassurance of details—where he had been and which dorm, and what he’d used. I knew nothing, so they spoke to one-another: He had hanged himself from a beam in the common area outside his bedroom. No one had been around; it was late at night. It was the first time in class they had spoken across the table, to each other, rather than to me. They reassured each other, filled in details, collaborated on finding meaning in a way I could only dream of in a writing exercise.
Then they began to reassure me, “There isn’t anything anyone could have done” Rishi said, looking directly into my face for the first time. “They say that hanging is not a cry for help; it means he really wanted to die.”
As I searched for some words to comfort them, all I could think of was Shakespeare, but the lines were all gruesome jokes. In Hamlet one gravedigger says to another, “what’s he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?” and the other replies, “the gallows-maker, for that frame outlives a thousand tenants.” “Seek for me tomorrow” jokes Mercutio, fatally stabbed under Romeo’s arm, “and you will find me a grave man.”
They tell me the stories about other people they have known who have committed suicide. My colleague told me she was teaching at NYU the year that three freshmen killed themselves in one month. Some experts blamed the cochlear architecture of the library, where two of the three had chosen to make their final exit—a panopticon of plexiglass and black and white tile, each floor a distorted near-mirror image of the next.
Another teacher told me that she still thought about a student of hers who had committed suicide a decade ago.
“At least you didn’t cry,” was the response of my workshop instructor, who had written an essay about the suicide of a colleague.
I learned that my mom’s high school boyfriend had killed himself the year she left for college.
Suddenly, suicide was everywhere and everyone was echoing the phrase “there was nothing you could do” while, like my students, we all searched for details that would explain what he did.
“Did he seem depressed?”
“No. He seemed bright as a 100-watt bulb.”
“Where was he from?”
“He went home for the holiday, maybe it was the Minnesota winter.” Or: “The first year is hard. Most student suicides occur among freshmen, but most happen during the fall. If they can get through the fall usually they are all right.”
This logic seems contradictory. If there is an explanation, isn’t there a cause? And if there is a cause, isn’t there something someone could have done to prevent it?
I’m at home now, and it’s late. On the table in front of me is a small stack of Allen’s writing exercises, turned facedown. For the past week I’ve kept pulling them out of my bag and putting them back in. I can’t read them. They’re handwritten, and I know I’ll analyze every crazy tilt of the letters, running my fingers over them to see how heavily he pressed.
I have to teach tomorrow, but I’m frozen.
My lesson plan is on the use of chiasmus in Hamlet. A chiasmus is a crossing of words: When I first came across the word, I thought it said a crossing of swords, which seemed right. The image of crossed swords reminded me of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech, his immobility as he tries to decide whether to kill himself, take revenge, or do nothing. That prolonged moment of indecision, like crossed swords at the beginning of a duel, mirror the words that move inward and outward at the same time. “To be or not to be” is an example of chiasmus, the “x marks the spot” where the syntax of the sentence turns inside out, turning the logic around at the same time. Hamlet’s world is upended, but it is the upending of logic that saves him, by allowing him the time to consider his next act. It’s no wonder he chooses madness.
Chiasmus saves him, in a sense, but how would I explain this to my students? The only word they’ll hear is “suicide.” And it feels like a cruel joke, like exploiting someone else’s pain. I’m supposed to be teaching rhetoric, but how can I treat the question of non-being rhetorically?
A crossing of words. Chiasmus suggests more than rhetorical trickery. To me it seems a kind of alchemy, by which language associations create connections in the real world. What is a connection between two people but the way their thoughts line up and complete each other, like two transparencies laid over one another to create a whole picture. By this logic, language should have the power not only to make sense of the world but to make the world.
I first began feeling truly depressed as a freshman in college. I physically couldn’t drag myself out of bed for days. My grades fluctuated weekly, from all As to Cs and Ds when I turned in work late or sometimes not at all. But preceding these depressions were days of extreme joy. I’d join all the clubs, write stories, turn in what I thought was brilliant work with barely any effort, I’d party and feel limitless energy. Between these two states were stranded “mixed” days where, exhausted and agitated, even the grass was too green. I could see every dew drop standing on every blade as though placed there by an art director wielding a pot of Elmer’s glue. I described this feeling in my journals at the time as “a fire in the belly” like Portia in Julius Caesar, the Stoic’s daughter who kills herself by swallowing burning coals.
Sickness is catching.
“Sickness is catching, oh were favor so, yours would I catch, fair Hermia ere I go” laments Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She wishes that her lover’s favor, like an illness, were communicable, and that she might catch this disease from the woman he adores in her place. But emotions do fly from person to person. Allen depression seemed to have landed on me. A sickness that reveals as it conceals, depression showed me the gaping pit below, reminding me that mine was a high-wire act, one I’d been performing for a long time.
Suicide can catch the imagination of the living. It is like Hamlet handling a poisoned sword: one last cut seems inevitable.
The problem with language is that its meaning can often only be perceived through re-reading. The connections between image and meaning, between sense and sensibility, are discovered retroactively, once the reader knows where the author is going. This is also the problem with signs. Reading backwards, my own depression should have alerted me to Allen’s pain, but in fact the effect went the opposite way. I time-traveled to watch my younger self first confronting depression and saw the ways I’d learned to cover these ups and downs as an adult, though they were still there.
His thoughts look like dropped stitches. The papers had been ripped from a notebook, the chads scattered inside my bag. Allen’s first homework assignment was sort of a literary autobiography: “What is your best experience with writing?”
He had dutifully copied out the question at the top and I imagine he paused here, reaching for something true but also correct. He pressed hard into the paper, making every letter indelible:
“My best experience with writing was a paper I wrote for AP English. The assignment was to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and to imagine what it might feel like to be invisible.”
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.