Too many people have died


by Rosemary Ruffenach, September 22, 2009 • 

“Yes, n how many deaths will it take till he knows

That too many people have died?”

— from Blowin’ in the Wind by Peter, Paul and Mary

It was a week when deaths made headlines: scientist Norman Borlaug, (at age 95 of cancer, Nobel Laureate, father of the Green Revolution and credited with saving a billion lives); actor Patrick Swayzy, (age 57 of cancer and of Dirty Dancing fame); and singer Mary Travers (age 72 of leukemia and of Peter, Paul and Mary fame). Their deaths were notable and tribute paid in the media—although the only one that registered with my students was Swayze’s. But that same week, another death occurred—one that was not mentioned in the media, but one that should be noted nonetheless.

Rosemary Writes – Rosemary Ruffenach is a teacher who occasionally finds time to write for the TC Daily Planet.

It was that of my former student Justin*, at age 19. Justin came to our alternative school last winter and immediately stood out. His impish grin, musical talent and urge to stir things up brought to mind Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Academic achievement of the usual kind, though, wasn’t of much interest. He seemed quite bright—it was hard to actually know, since I got little written material from him. Instead, he wanted things to be happening: a debate, a controversy, a practical joke. He bubbled up interesting ideas, such as a school musical or a field trip to the Blood Bank. I was open to the ideas, but his follow-through somehow always fell through.

When he took off for Mexico in mid-March, his friends worried. State Department travel warnings had been issued for the border areas due to drug gang warfare. “He’s going to get himself killed,” they warned.  When he returned though, Justin reported he and his buddies  hadn’t crossed the border because they hadn’t brought their passports along–but they had done Las Vegas. However, when spring break rolled around later in the month, he was passport-ready and then did the Mexico trip.

Back in January, we staff members were aware that Justin was enrolling because he had been asked to leave a sober school. When, because of his behavior and frequent absences, teachers began to suspect that Justin was using drugs, his family was contacted. Justin responded with angry demands to know what right the school had to interfere in his affairs. By April and May, he was attending perhaps one day a week, and I had given up on getting much out of him. Thus the school year ended.

Student hearsay has it that over the summer Justin moved from smoking marijuana and snorting ecstasy to doing heroin. When a close friend tried to persuade him to return to the sober school, he refused. “I’m going to live fast and die young,” he often declared.

On a recent Saturday night, his mother walked into his bedroom and found him dead. Heroin overdose.

Although many of the students who had known Justin the previous year had left the school by this September, those remaining were hit hard by his death. As hard, or even harder hit, were his teachers.  For me, it was the fourth student death in recent years, and the circumstances of Justin’s death were similar to those surrounding the death of a young family friend. At first I didn’t know what I felt. There was shock, and then a deep sadness. I tried to imagine what it would be like to walk into a bedroom and find the child you had nurtured, for whom you had such high aspirations, gray and lifeless.

 One of my colleagues had a different reaction. “I’m so angry at those damn drugs!” she spat out. “They’re eating up our kids!” And there were the questions we asked ourselves: “Was there something more we here at school could have done?” “How many more like Justin will we see?” “When we spot the signs, as we did with Justin, what can we do or say that might halt the spinout?”

There was a moment that provided some solace. Mid-week I was working with a student on her goals for the year from a list provided in the workbook Top Twenty Teens. One of the attributes listed was ‘courageous.’ When I volunteered that was something I wanted to work on, she questioned why, saying, “I think teachers must be courageous to come in and work with us every day.”

Friday several of us attended Justin’s visitation in the early evening. Slanting sunlight from the west filled the mortuary lobby; photo boards and artifacts of Justin’s life, a guitar, a snowboard, and most touchingly, his third grade handmade photo album, were displayed around its perimeter. Young people crowded the entryway crying and hugging. The line of visitors formed to express condolences to Justin’s parents snaked out of the viewing room and through the lobby. Bouquets scented the viewing room, and a luxuriant spray of red roses spilled over the coffin stand. A colleague, who had been hesitant to attend because of the possibility of an open coffin, later said that having an open coffin was likely a good thing.  It allowed the young people to see the reality of deadness: what can actually happen. So many believe our warnings don’t apply to them–that they are immunized somehow from a fate that ensnares others.

Although Mary Traver’s echoing soprano question “How many people must die?” was long an antiwar anthem, today I hear it as an urgent plea for our young. What can we do to save their lives?

*’Justin’ is a pseudonym to conceal the student’s identity.