At 2:30 p.m., almost the end of the day, a voice on the loudspeaker asks me to go to the main office, where the assistant principal hands me a 10-page suicide note written by 9-year-old Darianis. I notice it’s written in crayon, a different color for each paragraph. Darianis’s friends had found the note and handed it to the teacher. I call her teacher and ask her to send Darianis down.
Soon a pretty, wise-looking fifth-grade girl arrives at my office. We’ve never spoken before. I introduce myself with a smile and let her know that she’s not in trouble. Then I show her the letter and ask her to tell me about it. She tears up and explains that her best friend plays a game called Who Am I Not Going to Be Friends With Today. Recently, the recipient had been Darianis, and since then, her treasured best-friend necklace had been taken away and replaced with a cold shoulder. It’s not unusual for these young children to threaten their own lives, particularly when their self-esteem has taken a hit as a result of some perceived social failure.
I ask Darianis how long she’s felt sad and frustrated, if she has a plan for suicide, and if she’s told anyone. She answers, “A few days,” and says “no” to the other questions. She also talks about her mom making her clean up after her younger brothers and wash dishes. I tell her it sounds like she has a lot on her mind between school and home, and ask what she likes to do after school and the names of her friends. I write each name down, totaling 13. I keep a scale in my room for just such occasions, and ask her to put a bead on one side. It leans to the right. I then ask her to put 13 on the other side. Point made? Yes. I also draw a large circle, saying this was her life this week. How many bad things happened to her? She said just the one incident. I draw a tiny circle inside the big one. She smiles. I ask which is bigger, and she traces the large one. She’s feeling better.
If I sense a child is at serious risk of suicide, I take them to the psychiatric emergency room, but in a case like Darianis’s, where this action doesn’t seem necessary, the protocol is first to call a parent to let them know what happened, and then to ask that the parent pick up the child to get him or her home safely. Since I can’t get Darianis’s mother on the phone, I ask the assistant principal if I can escort her home myself. Darianis is reluctant, not wanting her mother to know about the letter and her feelings. I tell her that if one of my children had written this, I’d want to know. Then I make it more personal, saying that I could get in trouble if I kept this to myself. She nods sadly, and we head to her apartment, eight blocks away.
When I explain to Darianis’s mother why I escorted her home, her mouth drops in shock, and she hugs her daughter. They both cry. After a while, we discuss how Darianis was feeling about her home life, and her mom listens empathically. She asks Darianis to step inside and briefly says that she wishes she could invite me in, too, but her sister and two nephews are living with her and there’s no room. We make an appointment to follow up in my office Monday morning.
After seeing mother and daughter hug so warmly, I have a sense Darianis is going to be all right. As I walk back to school, a baby in diapers grins at me from her father’s lap. A group of teenagers give me a wary look from their seats on a nearby stoop. On the opposite side of the street, kids are playing in the gushing water from an open fire hydrant. One boy I recognize rushes up to ask me what I’m doing here.
“Working,” I say. He gives me a fist bump and rushes off to rejoin his friends, leaving a glistening puddle of water on the sidewalk where he stood.
When I return to my office, there’s a message from children’s services about Shakira’s case from Monday. The abuse allegation was determined to be unfounded: evidently she’d made similar, unsubstantiated claims in the past. With a start, I realize that I’d forgotten to check in with her yesterday. I leave a note with her teacher for Monday, asking that Shakira see me after morning lineup. It’ll be the start of a new week, filled with the inevitable crises and challenges, but also with the smiles and small accomplishments that come each day at PS 48.
Howard Honigsfeld, MSW, is a school social worker and a former teacher. He is in practice in North Bellmore, NY, and specializes in counseling children and families. Contact: Honigsfeld@optonline.net.
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