Teaching Empathy: Short Stories about Suicide in the High School Classroom

November 28, 2017 |

November 28, 2017 – Before I officially began my teaching career, I apprenticed at a middle school class for a few months. One week, I was pulled aside and informed that one of the students had tried to take her own life and was under observation. I was crushed. I particularly empathized with this student because she’d opened up to me. Though she was a good student, she had felt under enormous pressure around the school’s state-mandated testing. One of her teachers remarked to me that we could use her scores; they were sure to be high. I remember feeling it was disrespectful to be thinking so coldly about test scores considering what this student was going through.

As an English teacher, stories are constantly on my mind. Sometimes, we forget to empathize with the humans around us, but stories require empathy. These fictional characters can touch my students in a distinct way; sometimes even more keenly than real people. I am always impressed with how easily my students slid into a main character’s perspective.

In my role, I am responsible for giving these young minds a space for dialogue. This is especially true regarding short stories that touch on mental health and suicide.

“Desiree’s Baby” by Kate Chopin is the first to come to mind. Class discussion invariably turns to the question of why the protagonist, Desiree, takes her life at the conclusion, and whether her husband is responsible for these events.

One student excitedly said Desiree had so many other things she could have done. Another classmate responded that Desiree felt she had no other option. The first student then remarked that it was unfair Desiree allowed herself to become a victim of circumstances. Rather than assigning blame, these two students chose instead to validate the character’s feelings. It was a remarkable display of empathy.

Another story I love to teach is “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J. D. Salinger. Many of my students strongly connect with “Bananafish.” Seymour, the story’s main character, has recently returned from WWII, and grapples with emotional trauma hidden beneath the surface. Those around him sense his distress, but gloss over it just before his sudden suicide.

I teach near a naval base, and the majority of my students have some personal connection with someone in the military. Many of them are familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder, the fragility of soldiers, and how easily they may be triggered. Rather than discussing motive, we had a conversation about all the red flags that appear in the story: that if people were more familiar with the common warning signs of suicide, Seymour could have been connected to help.

During one discussion, we focused on the scene in which Seymour’s wife Muriel and her mother discuss Seymour’s mental state. A student posed a question: how do you know if something is a warning sign?  Did the story offer any clue that could have alerted one of the other characters that Seymour needed help?  

There was an energy to the discussion. The students had all become instantly engaged. Muriel and her mother could have discussed their concerns with Seymour! On the other hand, the students realized that people were less informed about mental health during the time in which the story was set.

While “Desiree’s Baby” had started a conversation about empathy, “Bananafish” began one about the need for communication.

I can’t help but think about how when I teach these stories, it often seems that the students are speaking of characters as though they are real people they have met.

We are not alone in our struggles. Exposing young minds to literature that opens them up to the experience of others fosters a sense of natural human empathy. This is so vital to having a greater understanding of mental health, and being alert to signs of distress that can save lives. Most of all, these stories let students know that emotions are universal…and that help exists if they just reach out.

Wade Harms has been an English and Creative Writing Teacher in Virginia for 3 years. He received his master’s in teaching from Virginia Commonwealth University.

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