The Suddenly Empty Chair: After a student’s suicide, an instructor questions herself
He only missed one day of class. As an instructor, when you look at your roster and see exemplary attendance, one day usually doesn’t raise concern. But there’s always that little voice in the back of your mind. The one that says, “This kid has record attendance. He’s never missed a quiz or an assignment. E-mails when he’s going to be late. Apologizes when he is. I hope he’s OK.”
Then you read the headline: “Student found dead on campus. Police investigating.” And your heart sinks.
I cannot explain why, but I knew it was my student. I walked past his fraternity house later that morning. Police cars and TV-crew vans crowded the parking lot. From across the street I watched the dubious displays of grief and mourning from his brothers—young men, sitting sprawled out in tattered lawn chairs in the warm sunshine, some of them shirtless, circling a makeshift memorial of candles, flowers, and unsmoked cigars. Faces buried in their cellphones, the occasional smile, a pat on the back, a shaking of the head in apparent disbelief. He had killed himself several days before one of them noticed the smell and knocked on his door.
My judgment of them is a judgment of myself. I knew Geoffrey, as I’ll call him here, but I did not know him. He was 19. That quiet student who floats in and out of the classroom. Asks the occasional question. Turns in flawless work. Never misses a deadline. Scores well on quizzes. Dutifully collaborates with his group. We talked about Texas once. Compared notes on the Austin nightlife. How much I loved living there. How much he would like to. The small grin or smirk at my meager attempts at humor. Insignificant moments instructors share with their students.
What I did know about Geoffrey was that he seemed to be an anxious, high-strung young man. He would walk in, sit at his computer station, and fidget endlessly with the mouse, the keyboard, the monitor, his chair, his cellphone, the mouse again—making sure they were all in the correct position before proceeding to log in and begin his work. He was always clean-shaven, impeccably dressed regardless of whether he was wearing khakis and a dress shirt or a T-shirt and sweats. He wore a Polo baseball cap, and Ray-Bans.