I’m waiting beside the train tracks at the corner of Alma Street and West Meadow Drive in Palo Alto. I’m waiting for the train to pass, when I spot a man on the side of the tracks dressed in a lime green jacket beneath a lime green awning with a pair of binoculars and a utility belt. He’s wearing a headphone. He must be a crossing guard only I’ve never seen a crossing guard so well-equipped. In fact, I haven’t seen a crossing guard on the Caltrain tracks, ever. As the train approaches he carefully studies the tracks with the binoculars. The train passes. I ask him what he’s doing. He tells me he’s a volunteer on “suicide watch.”
In a single year, four teenagers have committed suicide by walking in front of speeding trains. I read about them; bright, promising young people in an affluent and extremely competitive town, Palo Alto. Why? Everyone wants to know. And everyone is frustrated that no one wants to talk about it. No one wants to talk about it because no one knows how to talk about suicide, at least not in a way that can help young people.
“It’s very difficult and it’s very sensitive,” Caltrain spokeswoman Tasha Bartholomew said.
So sensitive that most of us want to ignore it. Palo Alto set up a committee comprised of pediatricians, schools, police and community agencies after the first two suicides this year “to come up with a response to address this pattern.” Gunn High School, where the victims attended school, referred all questions to the Palo Alto Unified School District. A district spokeswoman said there would be no statement from either the school or the district because “it’s just felt that’s the best approach.”
Is it? I think there’s another approach that parents, teachers, and students should be taking. What if parents could pick up a copy of Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why. Or, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls. Read it. Talk about what it means and share. I don’t know either of these authors personally but I do know how these novels have helped raise questions in the classroom many teachers and parents are ill-equipped to talk about.
I’d like to ask all the young readers a question and they are welcome to respond in whatever way that feels safe for them. Has a friend, fellow student, family member ever come up to you and confided thoughts of suicide? What did you do to help them? Have you ever read a story with a character who committed suicide? What book was it? What did you think of the story? Of the character?
Parents or any adults currently reading. I’d like you to share with an answer to this simple question. What inspirational novel would you recommend to a young person who appears depressed?
This is the dialogue I want to nurture on my blog. It may not be as easy as posting gushy raves about our favorite YA reads, but I think it will be rewarding to share authors who can help us deal with some really tough issues. It’s tough to break the ice on a topic these sensitive, so I will give out a copy of my YA debut novel, Cease & Desist, that has a character who commits suicide before the story begins. The first two responses from anyone will get this book.
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