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FIRST-PERSON: A teacher who put kids first until the day of her suicide

ATLANTA (BP)–I’ve always thought there was something awesome, something unique about giving yourself so totally to a profession that everything else in life pales in comparison. Schoolteachers of yesteryear were often known for their great sacrifices. They were self-effacing, humble and thoughtful. They were respected members of society. Women teachers were treated as ladies. Men were deferred to because of their academic knowledge or experience.

They put students first, even often at the cost of their own well-being.

A colleague of mine did not do that the other day. In the wee hours of the morning, while many of us were probably dropping off to sleep, my friend — for whatever reason — took her own life.

A dedicated and respected veteran teacher, she broke her own rule, her own code of honor and forgot to put the students first.

Maybe it’s a wakeup call to all of us. Maybe teaching is not what it once was. Maybe some of us are not cut out for the day-to-day grind, the constant criticism from both students and parents, and the expectations that we put our nose to the grindstone nearly 24 hours a day.

“Whatsoever is holy, whatsoever is good …,” the Scripture penned by the apostle Paul demands I think further.

Wanda, gingerly creeping down a crowded hallway, pushing a cart from one class to another. Wanda, just past 50, with a crooked smile from a stroke she suffered years ago, yet ready to affirm, “It’s been better this week.” Wanda, laying hands on the head of a fellow teacher, praying for her strength. Wanda, exhausted and tired of life. Oh, Wanda.

And yes, those tear-stained faces of high school teenagers who wrestle in agony over whether they could have pushed her to the edge, whether their gripes could have been the final straw. The parents who have checked in with grief in their voices, trying to remember whether they were too harsh, too critical of decisions she made concerning their child’s grades. Teachers who wondered how they missed what must have been her utter despair on her last day of school when she apparently took from her classroom most of her very personal belongings. Administrators trying to run an overcrowded school with too few teachers and too many students — asking themselves what they could have said, what they could have done, and whether it would have mattered.

My own pain runs deep. I too look for answers in the hallways of the school building, in the soft light lamps in Wanda’s classroom, on the faces of her students. But finally, I must trust that there are not answers to every tragedy. There are things we do not and cannot know about every detail of life and death.

A schoolteacher all her life, Wanda lived alone and had no close relatives. Her mother is in a nursing home a few states away. Wanda’s will left instructions for cremation, but specifically requested no funeral or memorial service. She did suggest students attend a church of their choice on Sunday. Always conscientious, she left instructions for where to find a full year’s lessons plans for her classes. Evidently, by the time Wanda put the gun to her temple and pressed the trigger, she had decided this was the best course of action.

But that’s the easy part — to let ourselves think about how we are blameless and somehow, maybe because of her poor health, she simply had too much going on and decided to end it.

How easy it would be to quote a few verses, smile knowing smiles and just get on with living. But there’s an inherent problem with that scenario. How can we utter compassion and understanding and yet not appear to condone the wrongness of suicide? How do we express regret, remorse and concern, yet at the same time be quick to defend the value of life at all costs?

Suicide, however noble it may seem at the time, is not a selfless but a selfish act. Extenuating circumstances aside, the harsh reality of it means a despair so deep as to be untouchable even by God.

Pray with me today. Pray for those gentle teens who so need to understand that even in our deepest, lowest times, God still loves us, he still cares. Pray that we will all face the truths — even the ugly ones which surround us every day. Pray we will seek to be less critical and more loving; less condemning and more understanding.

While the war rages against terrorism, pray that we will wage a war against apathy and cynicism, against complacency and denial.

Teachers, heroic role models, must have our deepest respect and attention. They are vulnerable within a system seeking to right societies’ wrongs and to lead the children of those who have not chosen Christ as Savior or the Bible as the inspiration for life.

Most assuredly Wanda pulled the trigger. No one student, parent, colleague, family member or friend can be blamed for the tragedy. And yet what a wakeup call this can serve to remind us of the need to reach out to each other, to ask ourselves tough questions and to reflect on our own actions. Next time we are too busy to talk, too caught up to stop and reach out to a friend, or to rushed to answer a phone call from afar, remember Wanda and remember the teens.
Hannigan is a national correspondent for Baptist Press and a high school English and journalism teacher in the Atlanta area.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan