Goodbye Texts: A Reflection on a Student Suicide

By Shelby Denhof

The names in the following article have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy.

There were four minutes before the first-hour bell rang when the counselor came to tell me my student committed suicide.

“Do you know Andrew — “ She checked her paperwork for assurance. “ — Olivares? Andrew Olivares?”

“Yes, he’s in this hour.” I gestured into my classroom. I expected to share something benign, like he’s out on a college visit.

“Well, you should know he’s at the hospital in critical condition. Some of your students may already know, so I wanted you to be prepared.” She glanced down at her paperwork again, seeming to look for some mysterious next step in what to say.

“Wow, really? Is he going to be okay?” My glance went from kid to kid as they walked into my room and took their seats.

“Well, no,” the counselor said matter-of-factly. “He shot himself last night. There’s no brain activity.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means he’s not going to get better.”

“Oh, okay.” That’s all I could muster to say. Oh, okay, as if I was just told we had a meeting that day after school or something. Oh, okay. I stared at her dumbly. It felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.

“I have to go let other teachers know.” She walked away. Now there were two minutes until class began.

Somehow I found myself stumbling into Ms. Sensing’s room down the hall. “What’s wrong?” she asked as I slumped down between her desk and the wall in a place hidden from students, my hands holding up my head. “One of my students committed suicide last night. Andrew. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to say. Class is about to start. How am I supposed to go in there?” This barrage of words came out in a flurry intermingled with tears. “Oh, Shelby,” Ms. Sensing said. “That’s so hard. Oh, Shelby.” She just kept repeating that. She didn’t know what to say, either, but she sat with me, those two minutes seemingly suspended for an eternity.

I wiped my face dry and knew I had to go back to my room.

I was only a minute late to first hour. The kids didn’t seem to notice. I couldn’t make eye contact with any of my kids yet. I couldn’t tell if it was quieter than usual. I stared at the schedule I had written on the board moments earlier: Jonathan Edwards’ Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. A journal prompt about fate, asking if we are in control of our own destiny. It all felt grossly inappropriate now.

I finally addressed the class: “We were going to pick up where we left off with ‘Sinners’ today, but I don’t want to do that anymore.” They waited for what I’d say next. In that moment, I wondered how many of them knew about Andrew already. I knew my students could see the blotchiness on my face, many wondering why I seemed upset, still totally unaware of why that seat in the corner was empty. My eyes kept being drawn to that empty seat.

We worked on something else for the hour. I don’t really remember what. It didn’t matter. None of my students brought Andrew up and I couldn’t bring myself to open that door.

First hour ended. They walked out and within minutes, new students came in for the next class. I saw red faces, puffy eyes in their midst. This group knew.

I suddenly became aware that I hadn’t had a chance to breathe yet, a moment to think on my own. No one came to check in on me and my class. No announcements had been made. There was only one email saying that a crisis team had been brought into the school and to urge students to come down to the office if they seemed to be struggling.

I stood at the front of the room and summoned up some courage to give what I hoped was an inspiring speech, but it all came out so lamely: “It’s a hard day today. We’re going to take it easy. If you need a moment to yourself or want to go talk to a counselor, please, just step out. You don’t even have to tell me if you don’t want to. Do what you need to do. I’m here for you, though.” Still, I couldn’t bring myself to say Andrew’s name, to say what happened. There were probably kids in the room that had no idea why I made such an odd statement.

Second hour ended, then third. New students kept coming in. By then, I was sitting down on an open table. The weight was too much.

“Many of you know about what happened to Andrew,” I started. “He is in my first hour. Was. I’m sorry.” I paused. “I don’t know what to say or what I even should say to you all, but I see on your faces that many of you are hurting. I have to put on a strong face for you, but I’m hurting, too.

“My first year of teaching, I lost two friends to suicide. It was incomprehensible and tore me up. It still does, really. It still isn’t okay. It hurts because you can’t explain it. I don’t know if that feeling ever goes away. I’m going to try and run this class and I’m going to try and muster up some enthusiasm, but please know that’s not me being callous. I care. I’m in shock and I haven’t had time to think. I’m putting a brave face on for you, but if you need a moment to step out and breathe, if you need to go talk with a counselor or just take a break, please do. I understand. I want you to.”

They nodded. Many took me up on my offer, stepping out to do what they felt they needed. I trusted them.

The days that followed brought unexpected occurrences. Andrew’s name disappeared off my attendance list almost immediately, totally erased from our online system. I went to pass back assignments and found one of his. I couldn’t recycle it. I just stuck it back into my ‘pass back’ folder where it still sits. Friends of Andrew’s began collecting pop cans in their subdivisions to help his mom pay for the funeral. Still, there was no formal announcement made over the intercom about Andrew, no clear, unifying message for our student body, just shifting rumors and bottled up grief and frustration. Some teachers suggested our administration was hesitant to make an announcement because they worried talking about suicide promotes suicide. Many scoffed at that, choosing to address Andrew’s death with their students as I did. Many never addressed it with their own students, citing that was the parents’ responsibility. It was a confusing time, one with little guidance. I felt I had to find my own way. Eventually, the superintendent sent out a message to the families of our school, albeit a week later. The delay offended some of my kids, those of whom were friends with Andrew. “It’s like they don’t care about what happened,” one student told me. I knew that wasn’t true, that there is always more to a story that we don’t all see, but I also knew there was no convincing that student otherwise.

At home I grieved in my own way: googling his name, trying to find pictures of Andrew. I read and reread all the comments on the obituary and on the GoFundMe page for his funeral. I scrolled through the list of donors, many of whom were my students. $50, $100, large amounts to salve their grief. I thought maybe that they were feebly trying to process Andrew’s suicide in the same ways I was.

Parents reached out to me, worried about their sons and their hesitancy to talk about what happened to Andrew. “Brayden shared the sad news with me right before bedtime last night,” one mom said in a voicemail. “We talked a little and he mentioned it was brought up in a couple of classes, including yours.” There was a pause. “I appreciate you doing that. Quite frankly, Braydon was hesitant to discuss it with me and I felt like there were more feelings he wanted to express, but maybe made him feel uncomfortable. Please, watch out for my boy when he’s there with you. There’s so much going on inside that he won’t share with me.” The call ended there.

I received another call from a parent. I answered. She told me her son received texts from Andrew before he died, but the son hadn’t responded because she, the mother, made him turn his phone off while he did homework. By the time her son turned it back on, Andrew had already shot himself.

That mother read the texts to me right there over the phone. Andrew asked him for help. When no response came, Andrew wrote out his last text to him:

you were always such a nice guy with the biggest smile. everyone loves you because youre so kind. you were a great friend to me. i wish i could have been as nice and as strong as you, but i cant. keep on being yourself. goodbye michael. i love you man. see you again someday

I learned that many of my students had received goodbye texts like that from Andrew.

How many of the kids sitting in the desks in front of me felt like Michael, felt responsible for their friend’s death? I didn’t know for sure, but so many walked with this invisible yoke bearing down on their shoulders. I was there for them in all the ways I could be, with patience and understanding, with a kind smile and sincere check-ins. I knew that couldn’t take their pain away for them. I so desperately wished I could, though.

The funeral was midday on a Wednesday. There were more kids in class than I expected. Than I hoped, honestly. I didn’t go to the funeral myself even. Maybe I thought it would be better for my kids to have me in class. When Ms. Sensing later asked me why I didn’t go, I felt ashamed, like I had made a horrible mistake. I hated myself for it.

The weeks went by and, on the surface, it quickly seemed as if nothing happened at all. The kids were back to their goofy selves, standing up just a bit straighter each day. The seat in the corner was finally taken with the creation of a new seating chart. Andrew’s name came up less and less.

Is this what happens when a student dies? We just all move on? It’s hard not to when everything is constantly going, going, going, a buzz of teens constantly demanding this and that from me, their teacher. But it feels wrong. The grieving feels curtailed, unfulfilled. I feel almost guilty for it.

Sometimes, though, his friends bring him up: how they met, Andrew’s favorite things, how everyone loved him. The stories seem to come from an inner well bubbling up to the surface, eager to break free and be expressed when allowed to.

Even still, I think of that quiet boy, how he’d come in long before first hour began, pop his headphones in, and place his head down on the desk, his long, dark hair spilling over his arms and onto the table. I thought he was just tired. My room was peaceful in the morning with its Christmas lights and dulled music. Sometimes we’d just exist in that quiet space together. Other times we’d talk, just briefly, never more than a few exchanged sentences. I remember the first day he came into my room so early. The year had just begun. “What’s your name?” I asked him. “Andrew Olivares,” he said.

“Andrew Olivares,” I repeated. “It’s nice to really meet you. Olivares. What a beautiful last name.”

He gave me a small smile.

Shelby Denhof is a writer and teacher living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Embedded in her teaching is her passion for travel, storytelling, and service. Her reflections on teaching can be found on websites such as Cult of Pedagogy, McGraw-Hill Education, Edutopia, and Refinery29. Shelby is a National Writing Project fellow, a National Geographic Certified Educator, and a 2018 participant in the National Endowment for the Humanities institute John Steinbeck: Social Critic and Ecologist in Monterey Bay, California.

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