When I started teaching high school in September of 2007, I knew there would be challenges: maintaining discipline, keeping up with grading, engaging students’ interest, developing a new curriculum—the list went on. What I did not consider, though, is the extent to which I would worry about my students. They are not my children. In fact, the older students aren’t even a decade younger than I am. But, for the first time, I understand a little bit about how parents must worry for their kids.
There are the small, daily things: tired eyes, forgetfulness, a rude comment that seems out of character. Later, a girl cries in a bathroom stall. A freshman eats lunch, alone, on the bench outside. A senior becomes paralyzed by a deadline and I fear that he will fail my class. A sophomore girl who is going through a hard time walks off campus with an older boy, and I hope that she is not relying too much on what he can offer her. Some days something small can send me on a marathon of worrying: I smell cigarette smoke on a student when she passes me in the hall, and I worry about her other acts of rebellion, about the company she keeps, about how hard it will be for her to quit, about her health, about all the ways in which she reminds me of a friend from childhood who was also smart and also fragile and also smelled like cigarettes and who has made a series of grave mistakes and suffered profound disappointments.
When I was in ninth grade, a boy I’d known since middle school committed suicide. We were not close friends, but we talked often and I liked him. Our easels were next to one another’s in Art 1. We traded compliments on pastel drawings, and he frequently made me laugh. And then, one morning, I learned that he had killed himself.
I don't know whether I would worry about him if I were his teacher. In my memories of him, he was sweet and friendly and always smiling. I like to think that now, as an adult, I would recognize, somehow, that he was in trouble. But I have no idea if I would, and even if I did, I fear that my worrying would not help him.
An old colleague at a bookstore once mentioned to me that she wanted to discover a new, good YA book that was not about something huge and sad. She was sick of recommending books about death and abuse and self-harm to nice women looking for birthday gifts for their nieces. I sympathized, but the truth is, I am drawn to books about sad things. I like reading them, and I like writing them. And now that I spend so many hours of my life worrying about real teenagers, I like the sad books even more.
My first novel follows a girl named Caitlin over the course of her junior year as she comes to terms with her best friend’s suicide. Caitlin is wrecked and inconsolable in the beginning, but because this is fiction, I can heal her. Not all the way, of course, but better and more quickly than I could heal a real girl. I can give her a friend. I can make her understand her mother. I can let her fall in love and take photographs and build something beautiful. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t only like sad books for the hopefulness that often develops from the sad things. The more a book makes me cry, the better. But part of what makes reading sad story after sad story bearable is that I trust that my fellow YA authors will sweep in and allow their teenage characters to save themselves. There is something profoundly reassuring about the stories of so many troubled kids grappling with awful situations and turning out okay.
The novel I’m currently writing is not about a big tragedy. It is about first heartbreak, though, which is also something damaging and difficult. And yes, heartbreak is something from which many of my students suffer. I worry about them, too.