“I’m a burden to everybody,” she began when I answered the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “Everyone would be better off if I wasn’t here.” “Are you considering suicide?” I asked. She paused, and quietly admitted she was. I asked her first name and age, for familiarity and a bit of context. “I’m Sue (not her real name) and I’m almost 14.” It broke my heart that a person so young believes others would be better off if she ended her life.
I asked why she feels a burden to others. “I frequently get in trouble at school and it’s really hard on my mother.” When I asked for an example, she related the following: “We’re reading To Kill a Mockingbird in class and the author uses the ‘N’ word throughout the book. My teacher insisted that, given the time it was written, and to make the story real, it was necessary to use that word. That upset me. I raised my hand and asserted there should have been a way to write the story without the ‘N’ word. The teacher said I was wrong, sent me to the principal, and he called my mother.”
“I can see merit in both sides,” I replied, “but your teacher was unwilling to engage in a discussion?” “No. She just told me I was wrong.”
“If I asked your Mother, would she say you are a burden.” “Probably not, but even if she doesn’t say it, I wonder if she sometime thinks I am.”
Since the example she gave me was over an issue she felt was important, I asked if she also gets into trouble for things that may be silly or trivial. She said that seldom happens. “Most often I get into trouble because of something I believe is wrong. When I have something to say, and speak up, even my friends roll their eyes. I make everyone’s’ lives difficult”
“Would it be fair to suggest you try to make the world a better place?” I asked. When she admitted she did, a thought occurred to me. “I can’t recall his name, but a black congressman passed away recently who did change the world.” “Do you mean John Lewis?” she asked. I was stunned. “You’re 13 and you know of John Lewis?” She said she did but didn’t know too much about him. I told her that one of his favored principles was “Make good trouble.” I suggested she might be doing what John Lewis asked of each of us.
“People who change the world, often make those around them uncomfortable. It’s impossible to nudge the world in new directions without being a burden in some lives,” I suggested. “If you want to change the world, be prepared to make good trouble. If you study the lives of activists, I think you’ll find they made many people uncomfortable.” She told me she just might do that.
When she told me she felt better and was no longer considering suicide, even though I wanted to hear more from this inspiring young woman, we ended the call.
Author, educator and philosopher, Neil Postman once wrote, “Children are the living messages we send to a world we will not see.” If, in our few moments together, that young woman began to discover a sense of who she is, and who she might become, perhaps I was blessed to witness a budding John Lewis, Greta Thunberg, Stacey Abrams, or Malala Yousafzai. If, in my lifetime, I do nothing more than send that one message to a future I will not see, perhaps that is enough.