I remember the 1st time we met. I was teaching summer school and you were an incoming 6th grader who was slated as needing extra academic assistance before starting school in the fall. The class was small and there were only 13 of you. I remember how much you laughed when I read aloud from Almost Starring Skinnybones-It's a delightful story about a student whose constantly picked on by his classmates and ends up making a cat food commercial that only serves to further humiliate him.
You used to lie on the rug and literally stretch out at my feet as I read aloud each day, almost bellowing with laughter- it was contagious and I remember your smile as if you were standing in front of me. I remember the day the other girls began to point and snicker at you as you rolled around on the floor giggling at one of your favorite parts of the story because your stomach was poking out of your shirt. They thought they were being subtle, nudging each other and snickering. I was livid as I reprimanded them for their behavior- reminding them that perfection is non-existent, and chiding them for their cruelty.
To me, you seemed almost oblivious to their taunts as your expression didn't change despite of their teasing. In reflection, I think you internalized it along with everything else. I remember months later, a few months into school year. It was bitterly cold and I was having trouble opening the door and had to call Ms. Taiit to let me in. Here eyes were red- "Sierra committed suicide last night".
I don't think I processed it right away. I remember walking around in a fog for most of the day, not knowing what to say to my students. How do you explain suicide to 7th graders? I didn't even cry at 1st- not until the the next day when the crisis intervention team, along with the directors of our network came into the classroom and said aloud to the class, "Sierra has committed suicide". I cried for weeks. How alone you must've felt. How you must have believed there was no other option.
The guilt was even worse, as I couldn't remember speaking to you or even seeing you once the school year began. How many times had I passed you in the hallway and not acknowledged you? How many of us failed to see your pain and do something about it?
I want you to know that you have forever changed me. I speak to students I don't know and hug them just because they seem to need it. I try my best to remember all their names and when I don't "sweetie" seems to do just fine. I want you to know that I'm sorry. We failed you.
The weeks after your death were filled with whispers, rumors, and finger-pointing. It had to be someone's fault. Parents, teachers, classmates someone. The reality is it's probably a mix of all these things. We have set up a system where students' scores and grades take precedence over their social and mental health. We failed you and we continue to fail others- it's really that simple. We failed you and I'm sorry. I dreamed about you the other night- maybe you are still trying to tell me something. I just hope that I hear you- I hope that we all do.
This blog post is dedicated to Sierra Brandon, who took her own life one year ago.