It takes a hero to save a life, right?
Well, not always.
It’s been 30 years since Sarah and Diane sat down and said to me, “We have to tell you something, but you have to promise not to say anything to anyone else.”
Sarah and Diane were high school sophomores at the time, and I was a teacher they knew and trusted. I had met them through extracurricular activities – they played on a softball team I coached – and now they stopped in every day to chat as I supervised the cafeteria. A girl named Marie was usually with them, but Marie wasn’t in school that day.
But before I could tell them that I couldn’t promise to keep a secret until I knew what the secret was, they blurted out, “Marie is thinking of killing herself.”
OK. Everybody take a deep breath. Sophomore girls can be a bit dramatic. They can exaggerate.
“What makes you think she wants to kill herself?” I asked.
If Sarah and Diane were being the drama queens, maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as it sounded.
“Because she said so,” they said in unison. “She didn’t come to school today, so we’re worried about her. But you can’t say anything.”
Sorry, I thought, that ship has sailed. A teacher burdened with news like that is obligated to report it. But I wanted to be sure.
“What was the context when she said it?” I asked. “She didn’t say, ‘I’ll kill myself if I don’t get those Bon Jovi tickets,’ did she?”
No, they said. It was a problem at home.
The kind of problem Marie couldn’t fix by talking with her parents. In fact, she didn’t think there was any fix except a final one.
“But you can’t say anything,” they said again.
“That’s not an option,” I said, and I got up to ask another teacher to cover my supervision for me so I could head to Marie’s counselor’s office.
Sarah and Diane wailed, “But she’ll hate us forever!”
I asked them, “Which would you choose – having a good friend hate you until she dies 70 years from now, or having her love you until she ends it tonight?”
They didn’t answer. They just kept crying.
“Trust me,” I said over my shoulder as I left, “you did the right thing. I’ll explain later. Unless you want to hate me forever, too.”
Once I handed the problem over to the counselor a few minutes later, my role in the drama was over.
For the girls, however, it was a different story.
Marie felt shocked and betrayed by her friends at first, but after a few days she was starting to come around.
She was seeing a social worker at school, and her parents were there, too. They had even begun to talk to each other, and Marie was starting to see that there may be fixes that didn’t have to be final.
But Marie had stopped coming with the girls to chat with me in the cafeteria. She was embarrassed.
“Tell her to come with you tomorrow,” I told them. “I miss talking with her. I’d like to see her.”
All three girls showed up the next day, but Marie was sheepish.
“Why so glum?” I asked her. “This is a happy story.”
They all looked at me as if I were crazy.
“Look,” I said, “you had a problem that you couldn’t tell your parents, so you did exactly what you should do next – you confided in your best friends. They didn’t know how to fix it, so they did exactly what they should do next – they went to a teacher they could trust. I knew I couldn’t fix it by myself, so I did exactly what I should do – I went to your counselor. She couldn’t fix the problem by herself either, so she went to your parents. And once your parents learned about your feelings, they reached out to you. And now you’re talking with them, with the social worker there to help things along. If that’s not a happy story, then I don’t know what a happy story is.”
“But it’s hard,” Marie said. She was on the edge of tears.
“It’s always harder to fix something than to throw it away,” I said. “A bike, a car … a life. But it’s getting fixed, right?”
“Anyway, I wanted to talk to you today because your friends were sure you’d hate them forever for breaking your trust. And then I broke their trust when I told their secret to your counselor. So should we start hating each other for a long, long forever now?”
And then it wasn’t so glum anymore.
As I said, that was 30 years ago. Students and teachers come and go. They get on with their lives, and sometimes they lose touch.
Although I never hear from Diane and Marie, I know they’re both doing fine. I know that because Sarah and I e-mail each other now and then, and at Christmas we exchange cards.
She now has children almost the same age she was when she told me Marie’s dark secret.
There is no telling what might have happened if she hadn’t betrayed Marie’s trust. Probably nothing. Plenty of young people talk about ending it all, but then they get over the feeling even if nobody does anything.
We tend to think that lives can be saved only by heroes. But there are no heroes in this tale – just a chain of powerless people who knew they couldn’t save a life by themselves, so they did what their heart said was the right thing to do. Even if it felt hard to do it at the time.
• Tom “T. R.” Kerth is a Sun City resident and retired English teacher from Park Ridge. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.