Last week, we received an eerily alarming email from the superintendent of our district. He warned we need to watch out for our teens. It’s November, you see. Last November when the days turned darker, and the air grew colder, while simultaneously school pressure increased with studying and college applications—local teens began stepping in front of the high speed commuter train from San Francisco and ending their lives. There was a cluster of suicides six years ago when I started writing Paint My Body Red and a cluster last year. This email referred to last year’s cluster. We had a different superintendent six years ago. He wasn’t even here. But I remember and the greater community remembers.
It was horrifying then. It’s horrifying now. It’s November. Will it happen again?
I can see parents of high school students wringing their hands. Watching their kids. No, studying their kids. Is their behavior changing? Sure, they are stressed—everyone is—but how much stress is too much? Is it step in front of the train too much, or just throw a text book across the room in frustrating too much? Parents whisper about it in dark corners. No one really wants to talk
about it, but somehow every conversation alludes to it. We’re all scared, even the parents of younger kids. A sign on my son’s middle school office door has a photo of a sad kid with the words “There is hope.” Meanwhile, my son is bouncing and happy. He’s twelve. But there’s this grave reminder following everyone around. It’s in the air. It’s in every whistle of every commuter train. Ghosts haunt our otherwise bustling famous city of Steve Jobs and HP and Facebook. Our otherwise gold rush town is tainted with the blood of our youth. It’s Shakespearean, really. In the summer, we don’t worry. We run around in the grass, we play baseball, we laugh. We relish all of our many successes. But now, it’s November and the clocks just rolled back. And we wait for cryptic emails we received too many of last year with the subject heading, “There’s been another tragedy.”
Why? Darkness? Shorter days jammed with too much work? Too much traffic? Too much of a need to be “perfect” to please our parents, to please our peers? To get into the best college? Why? All day long at school dealing with school pressure, peer pressure, then coming home to more homework, tutors, extra curricular activities that are way too demanding. Sun setting at 5PM. Long, dark shadows. Where’s the hot sun on our skin boosting our serotonin? We are used to a long, deep dose. When it’s gone, we shiver. We miss it. Where did the comfort go? Do these simple changes really affect our teens so much that we need to issue a warning? This is California. We live by the coast. Our climate is Mediterranean. Is this why we aren’t able to handle 60 degree days and an hour less sunlight? Are we too soft with our flip-flops in December attitude? I know I am. Last week our Wi-Fi was down, so I had to do a Twitter Chat #ChatWithHeidi from my car. I was shivering. It was hardly even cold. This is why the East Coast and middle America laugh at us. (And want to, sometimes, be us.) We are the land of year round outdoor birthday parties and beach bonfires. But we also are in the midst of a crisis.
All of these questions are why I wrote Paint My Body Red. To try and understand. Are teens in rural Wyoming dying of suicides in clusters when the days grow darker and shorter? I don’t know, but I wanted to explore the question. They have other problems there, as Jake tells Paige. In the U.S. news, we hear stories everyday of children accidentally shooting themselves and one another with their parents’ guns. We hear about shooters going on rampages in schools. We hear about police shooting unarmed black men. We don’t have that problem in progressive Silicon Valley (thank God, and knock on wood). We have other problems, though. We have pressure. We have trains. And our children’s deaths aren’t accidental. They are on purpose. They are killing themselves. They want off the fast track. They are done.
If history taught us anything: Yes, we do need to worry. We need to worry a lot. Even though we have wonderful help available now, even though our district is doing all they can—and I believe they really and truly care about our kids, otherwise I wouldn’t live here—yes, we still need to worry.
Last week, I made a big crock of chicken noodle soup and fresh baked bread. I’m no Anna. I rely on Door Dash as much as the next Silicon Valley working woman, but yesterday we needed some soup. When I came inside from the car, from answering questions to eager readers about my book, my hands were cold, my fingers stiff from typing on my tiny keyboard—and the hot soup and the warm, fresh bread with melted butter lifted my spirits. We need to be extra cautious. Extra kind. Give extra hugs. May we have a season with no tragedies. May we all be well and happy. But yes we still need to worry. We always will. Winter is coming.
About Paint My Body Red:
The world isn’t just black or white. Sometimes it’s red…
They think I’m next. That I’ll be the seventh kid to step in front of a train and end my life. With the rash of suicides at my school, Mom’s shipped me off to my dad’s Wyoming ranch for “my own safety.” They think I’m just another depressed teenager whose blood will end up on the tracks. They don’t know my secrets…or what I’ve done.
I wasn’t expecting Dad to be so sick, for the ranch I loved to be falling to bits, or for Jake—the cute boy I knew years ago—to have grown into a full-fledged, hot-as-hell cowboy. Suddenly, I don’t want to run anymore, but the secrets from home have found me…even here. And this time, it’s up to me to face them—and myself—if I want to live…