In Recognition of September as National Suicide Prevention Month
How do we stop LGBTQ youth from killing themselves? Might literature be one answer?
During the spring semester of 2002, while I was teaching my creative-writing class at Sheepshead Bay High School in Brooklyn, New York, a student -- let's call him "Paul" -- finally shared and read aloud a poem that he had just written in class. After not wanting to share and read aloud any of his writing for months, Paul eagerly expressed that he had to be the first student to read his poem to the class. With surprise, curiosity, and interest, the other students and I happily wanted Paul to be the first one to read his poem. And after he read, our jaws dropped with amazement, our eyes widened with shock, our brows curled with concern, our hearts stopped with empathy, and our bodies froze with fear. Paul had just revealed that he wanted to commit suicide. In his poem -- his work of literature -- Paul exposed his vulnerability and humanity and expressed his deep, dark desire to end his life. Paul used literature for his own purpose. This is the power of literature!
Although the rules of the school and the New York City Department of Education stated that, as a teacher, I was not allowed to leave my students in the classroom unattended without the supervision of a teacher, I broke that rule because I had to. I left the other students alone in my basement classroom; I told them to behave, which they did for Paul's sake; and I escorted Paul to the school psychologist's office, which was also located in the basement, but on the other side of the building. I left Paul with the school psychologist and walked back to my room. He needed to talk to a mental-health professional, and I needed to stop everything to listen to his cry for help. It was time that Paul received the help that he desperately needed.
I must also include the following information. That spring semester was Paul's fourth semester with me. For two years Paul was in one of my classes. The first fall semester of the first year with me, Paul was programmed in my "English 5" class, a junior-level course that focused on American literature. The next semester Paul chose to take my "English 6" class, another junior-level course focused on American literature. The following fall semester of the following school year, Paul chose to take my "Drama 1" class, which focused on the history of theater, scene study, and playwriting. And it was during the spring semester, our fourth semester together, in our creative-writing class, that Paul read his poem and divulged his plans for suicide. And I wondered if Paul chose my classes because of the literature that I taught.
Paul wanted to commit suicide because he identified as a gay male and was terrified to tell his parents that he was gay. From our first semester together I knew that Paul was gay; however, he never told me. I could hypothesize how I knew that Paul was gay. I could use the cliché that my gaydar detected Paul's gayness. But I won't waste time on that. I am more intrigued to explore whether or not Paul chose to take my classes because I included literature that would be defined as "gay" or "queer" or "LGBTQ": literature about LGBTQ people, with LGBTQ themes, written by LGBTQ writers. Or did Paul choose my classes because I would queer the heterosexual literature, asking such questions as: Why is Hester Prynne considered a sexual deviant by the other characters? What if Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale were not in love? What if Hester were a lesbian and Arthur were a gay man, and they had sex to show that they were heterosexual and to distract from their homosexual identities, and that was the more important secret that they needed to keep from the others?
Ever since that day -- and even before -- when Paul shook me to my core and brought back my own memories of suicide, I have always wondered about the power and influence of literature. I wonder what the effects of the literature were on Paul's life. As a gay male, did the literature that Paul read, whether assigned in class or not, transform and save his life? Did the literature that Paul wrote in my creative-writing class transform and save his life? Did Paul not commit suicide because he used literature?
After he graduated, I never saw Paul again, and I do not know what happened to Paul and his coming-out process and journey as a young gay man. But I do know that the school psychologist had many meetings with Paul and his parents to work through Paul's issues with identifying as a gay male and his parents' issues with accepting their gay son.
In high school I never read a work of literature with an overt LGBTQ theme or issue. And when we read a work of literature by an LGBTQ writer, the writer's homosexuality, gayness, queerness, or gay identity and sensibility were never discussed. I spent my four years in high school, from 1993 to 1997, knowing that I am gay but keeping it a secret. I was a part of the silent and ignored sexual minority -- the homosexuals -- that no one wanted to discuss, not even the English teachers. I had to fit in with the heterosexism that overwhelmed the school. I was forced to identity with the other outcasts, whether they were gay or sexual deviants, whom we read about in such works of literature as Billy Budd, Moby Dick, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and The Scarlet Letter.