BLOG: Was this irresponsible to the max?





So, an English teacher on New York’s affluent Upper West Side is in big trouble because she asked her ninth grade students to write a suicide note.

Before you yell, ‘whaaaaaaaat?’ let me explain. The kids weren’t being asked to pen their own suicide note, but that of a character in the acclaimed novel The Secret Life Of Bees.

The New York Post reported:

Newbie English teacher Jessica Barrish’s assignment focused on having kids channel fictitious character May Boatwright by writing in first person — as if they were her — about her legacy and how they wanted to be remembered by her sisters.

“How would you justify ending your life? What reasons would you give?” the project asked.

Some parents weren’t happy:

“We were pretty stunned at the scope of the assignment,” said a father of a ninth-grade student at the school. “We thought this was such an outrageous assignment for a 14-year-old to get,” he added. “We pay a lot of money to send our kids to the school.”

The New York Times article

Ahhh. Right. I’m not sure what he meant by that. Are kids at cheaper, or (gasp) public schools are better able to cope with suicide-themed assignments?

School fees aside, I get why parents might have been upset – the topic of suicide is confronting at best, and at worst, could trigger self-harm in a child who’s already deeply troubled.

Still, part of me thought the parents over-reacted.

In my role as a *ahem* novelist, I spend a fair bit of  time talking to high school students about reading and writing stories.  Most of the time the kids are happy to listen to me. Or at least be physically present. It means they’re not in maths.

If it’s a writer’s group or an English extension class, getting kids to write is easy-peasy. It’s getting them to stop that’s hard. A regular English class is a tougher nut, and you have to work hard to get them involved. So  I can see what this teacher was doing – trying hard to engage her students, help them get under the skin of the character they were trying to understand.

The Secret Life of Bees

Teenagers (most of them) love to write macabre stuff. It’s a default position for their writing.

Ask a dozen teenage girls to write 200 words from the perspective of  a nun in the eighteenth century, and I guarantee at least ten of them will have that nun wanting to top herself. One will have her in love with a monk in the neighbouring monastery and the other will write about the nun joining a brothel.


All completely normal. Misery is more interesting to read and easier to write than humour or adventure. And it feels sooooo important.

But could an assignment like this one  it make any difference to a child on the edge? Someone who’s really in trouble?

Simon Critchley — a philosophy professor at The New School university in Greenwich Village who recently taught a suicide note-writing workshop for adults — told The New York Post he believed the concerns, even for young teens, were overblown.

“I don’t see why this is inappropriate at all. If it is, then suicide is a taboo, and I simply think we have to think rationally about our taboos. I think it might even help students acquire a more mature and reflective approach to a hugely important topic.”

As a writer, I was with Simon Critchley.

Until I called Tim, a friend who’s also a psychiatrist. He  works with adolescents and has three kids aged 9 to 19, of his own.

Kate Hunter

“Interesting one,” he said, “There’s no doubt writing is an excellent form of self expression, and it could help kids share what they’re going through, but if the teacher isn’t trained to recognise and handle a kid in trouble, it could be very dangerous.”

Tim told me over 50% of adolescents have considered  suicide or self-harm and up to 10% had attempted to hurt themselves. Scary numbers. Real kids.

“That’s why,” he said, “There’s a blanket ban on media reporting of suicides. Teenagers kill themselves in clusters. An assignment like this offers some kind of social acceptability.”

“So you’d say it’s a bad idea?” I asked.

“I’d say be very, very careful. Therapists with years of training can struggle to identify and help these kids. Unless a teacher is up to it, it might be better to set another assignment. ”

So that’s where I’ll leave it. A well intentioned idea by a hardworking teacher. But risky. Risking kids lives. Not worth it. Choose another assignment.

What do you think?