The Empty Desks

Jul 1st, 2013 | By | Category: Opinion, The Inquisitive Academic, Web Exclusive
By Ryan Winn

EMPTY DESKSWe educators are attuned to recognizing potential. We see in our students the possibility of achieving great ambitions, and we can tell when our students are struggling with issues beyond their coursework. As tribal college and university (TCU) employees, we see our schools’ alumni as tangible proof of the U.S. Department of Labor’s findings that a person’s education level is often directly proportional to their access to employment and fiscal opportunities. But TCU employees also see students succumb to harsh realities that disproportionately affect American Indian people—including suicide.

Our institutions are all rightfully pillars of our respective communities, and as such we all need to work to strengthen the nations we serve. We educators have in our classrooms both the responsibility and the forum to help prevent student suicides, and therefore we each need to ensure that our students realize that taking their own lives has greater consequences than simply leaving behind an empty desk.

In 2012, the U.S. Center for Disease Control reported that American Indians have the highest suicide rates in the country and that Native people between the ages of 15 and 34 are ending their lives at a rate that is two and a half times the national average. For TCU employees, these are not mere statistics. They are the tragic reminder that too many of the students who enroll in our schools have lost a loved one, struggled with suicidal thoughts themselves, or chosen to take their own lives while completing their coursework. Student services divisions provide some help for at-risk individuals, but in order to truly right this wrong, every TCU employee needs to be a vigilant advocate for our students.

We need to find ways to respectfully discuss suicide prevention in our classrooms. I envision communication courses that ask students to contemplate the various ways to save lives in our communities. I ask biology and psychology professors to discuss the biological, physical, and social pressures that lead to people considering this irreversible course of action. I hope for education and nursing courses that teach future teachers and nurses to identify suicidal tendencies in their students and patients. I visualize economics classes that study the fiscal impact of suicides on American Indian communities, as well as the benefits of a vibrant, educated Indian nation. I wish for trades courses that focus on the necessity of teamwork and the burdens that arise when someone chooses to let their team down. I ask for math courses that calculate the probability that a student in their classroom will have the opportunity to prevent a peer from ending his or her own life. I hope culture professors will talk about the consequences of suicide to the Indigenous way of life. I propose we all strive to ensure that every student is thoroughly convinced that their life is worth living.

I’m aware that suicide is not an easy enemy to combat, but if there was ever a cause for TCU employees to be bold, this is it. In an article for Fronteras, Laurel Morales discusses efforts to convince a group of people in the Navajo town of Leupp to change their thinking about suicide. When an audience member said that there isn’t a word for suicide in their Navajo, the article quotes suicide prevention specialist Gilbert Contreras: “Then create one, because your brothers and sisters are dying in high proportions here when it comes to suicide. I think it’s a topic we need to talk about and put on the table.” Like Contreras, we must be firm yet respectful. We need to embrace action.

But we must also work to ensure that our efforts are focused on suicide prevention and not proliferation. This past June, English teacher Jessica Barrish of New York City’s York Prep made national news when she instructed her 13- and 14-year-old students to draft suicide notes from the point of view of a character who ultimately kills herself in Susan Monk Kidd’s novel, The Secret Life of Bees. Barrish asked her students to respond to the questions “How would you justify ending your life?” and “What reasons would you give?” I’m certain that Barrish had positive intentions for her assignment, but I believe that we TCU faculty members can agree that the focus should have been on suicide prevention, and not on her students’ adventures in vicarious speculation.

Our students—and I speculate the same is true for most young people—don’t need practice pondering all of the reasons to end their lives. They don’t need to contemplate what they’d include in the last letter they’d write, or even to develop a surrogate sense of empathy for a person who must continue on after their loved one chose not to. What our students need is the tool set and confidence to persuade themselves to see beyond their darkest days.

The empowering truth is that we TCU employees don’t have to look far for inspiration. In the fall 2011 edition of TCJ Online, Navajo Technical College student Zachary Long shared the story of how he overcame his suicidal thoughts. Long’s powerful words describe his struggles and triumphs. But what is most valuable to us educators is why he shared his story. Long says, “I’m writing about this topic because the suicides in our nation have got to stop. Those kids were probably feeling the same way I was: scared, worried what others may think of them, and just not worthy of this earth. They have to know that they are not alone.”

We TCU educators need to help students realize the truth of Long’s words, but to do so we have to be willing to transform our classrooms into spaces that celebrate life, as well as knowledge. After all, the greatest gift we may give our students is the reassurance that the world would be worse off without them in it.

Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communications at College of Menominee Nation (CMN, Keshena, WI), where he also serves as the Humanities Department chair. In the past seven years he has presented several papers, chaired a few panels, and directed and/or acted in stage readings at both national and regional conferences on the topic of American Indian theater. Similarly, he has directed 11 plays for CMN, coached their American Indian Higher Education Consortium speech team, and has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund Faculty Member of the Year.

Works Cited

Long, Z. (2011). Never give up [Electronic version]. Tribal College Journal, 23(1).Retrieved from http://www.tribalcollegejournal.org/archives/8055

Morales, L. (2012, August 31). Native Americans have highest suicide rates. Fronteras.
Retrieved from http://www.fronterasdesk.org/news/2012/aug/31/native-americans-have-highest-rate-suicide/

Owens, E. (2013, June 13). Swanky NYC prep school teacher directs students to write their own suicide notes. The Daily Caller. Retrieved from http://dailycaller.com/2013/06/13/swanky-nyc-prep-school-teacher-directs-students-to-write-their-own-suicide-notes/#ixzz2W9bUDAGf

Seamons, K. (2013, June 12). NYC teacher tells kids to write suicide notes. Newser. Retrieved from http://www.newser.com/story/169371/nyc-teacher-tells-kids-to-write-suicide-notes.html

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Suicide facts at a glance. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/suicide-datasheet-a.PDF

U.S. Department of Labor. (2012). Employment projections. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm

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