Sunday, March 22, 2015

What matters

ONE of the most resolute persons I know was just in her teens when the world she knew bottomed out.

She caught her stepfather sniffing the underwear she had discarded. This was no stranger; he was the only father she grew up knowing. Her biological father did not hang around after impregnating her mother.

Her mother took her stepfather’s side. She accused her daughter of seducing the foreigner. She threw her out of their home and stopped her allowance.

She found graveyard work. But it was mid-semester; school policies forbade work if it conflicted with classes. She chose.

In a class of about 20 students, she was easy to miss except that I am compulsive about tracking my student’s rewriting. When she missed passing a second draft, I asked her if there was any difficulty I could help her with. Usually, students complain they cannot read my handwritten notes. She gave me more than an insight in writing.

I remembered this soft-spoken young woman after reading Kevin A. Lagunda’s Mar. 17 Sun.Star Cebu report about two fifteen-year-old cousins who committed suicide in Daanbantayan, Cebu. Ana (real names not used) was reportedly scolded by her parents whenever she asked money for school projects.

Her cousin Mateo also hanged himself after attending Ana’s wake. He had been given a tongue-lashing by one of his teachers, who also did not sign his clearance and barred him from taking the final test.

Suicide hits hard every time but more so when it’s done by a young person. Could it have been prevented? Was it a cry for help that went wrong at the last minute? Where did we fail?

The last question haunts because suicide always seems like a tragedy that could have been averted. The deaths of Ana and Mateo confront their families and schools with questions that we should also face if we want to prevent other Anas and Mateos from cutting short their promise.

Sun.Star Cebu reported that Ana’s classmates found her body after reading a “cryptic message” she left on Facebook. Mateo texted his suicide note to a friend. These details leave an unbearable weight; just before that final act, Ana and Mateo reached out.

What if someone had listened earlier? A former student who became a fellow teacher, Ian was swamped by lecture work and legal practice. Yet, in his non-writing class, he asked each student to use the back of their notebooks as a personal journal. He told me he felt a need to know his students beyond the window afforded by the three hours a week he was paid for by the university.

Much of the shock I felt from listening to my former student talk about being betrayed first by the stepfather and then by her biological mother was soon swamped by inarticulate admiration for this quiet young woman. She took every obstacle hurled at home, in school, and at work. And moved on.

“Most teens who attempt or commit suicide have a mental health condition or substance abuse problem,” observes the nonprofit medical group Mayo Clinic. Depression, combined with social isolation and other factors, increases the risk of teen suicide.

Listening doesn’t seem like a lot except that, just before the end, Ana and Mateo sought this.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s March 22, 2015 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”

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