A Suicide Note as a Homework Assignment? One Teacher Crossed the Line.
Discovering your teen's suicide note is a nightmare scenario. What if you then found out it was really a class assignment? I'm guessing your first reaction would be relief. After that, would you be outraged at the inappropriate writing prompt or impressed at the creativity?
Jessica Barrish, an English teacher at a New York City private school, asked students to write a suicide note from the perspective of a character from the novel "The Secret Life of Bees."
Taking on a character's perspective for a creative-writing assignment is an English-class standard. However, at least some parents at this school feel the teacher crossed a line.
I have explored some controversial material with teens in the classroom, but I do not think I would have touched this one with a 10-foot pole. Asking students to empathize with characters is a useful intellectual exercise. Many great works of literature touch on the issue of suicide, which is an important topic for teens. In fact, I still remember writing a two-voice for Hamlet and Ophelia.
However, I also remember identifying so strongly with some literary characters as a young teen that I would "try on" their mannerisms and attitudes for a little while. Requiring students to identify with a character who commits suicide could contribute to suicidal ideation.
No, I do not believe an otherwise stable and secure teen will commit suicide after being asked to write a suicide note from the point of view of a fictional character. However, many teens do lack perspective and impulse control. An assignment like this could intensify a fixation on suicide. It is a risk I would not want a teacher taking.
At the least, a potentially triggering assignment like this should have allowed other options, including writing a note to convince the character to live or exploring the feelings of those she left behind. I would not try to censor all discussion of suicide, but requiring a teen to justify a suicide from that character's perspective seems like an ill-considered project.
How would you feel if your young teen brought home this assignment?