Teaching With Joy

October 2003


Seeing The Signals
by Joy Jones

Sonya was in my creative writing class and had the disdainful attitude typical of teenagers. She was not a serious behavior problem, but she certainly didnít impress me as a model student. Sonya was definitely in that stage of life where she regarded most adults as a nuisance. In my class, she wrote a story about a teenage girl who attempts suicide. I regarded it as typical adolescent angst and not as a desperate plea, but my principal had made it very clear that ANY indication that a child was considering suicide was to be taken seriously. So I referred Sonya to the counselor.

As it turned out - just as I thought - she wasnít suicidal, but her home life was no Cosby Show scenario. Sonya was living with her adult big sister. Her parents had divorced and both mom and dad were busy with their new partners - and the new babies that were the result. Sonyaís story was a way to express some of the anger and frustration that she was feeling; quite a creative way to sort out the messy situations of her life.

Learning the details of the story behind the story made me wonder - how do you tell if there really is a problem? What are the warning signs that a student is depressed or suicidal?

Mental health professionals identify the following as possible indicators. For depression:
- sadness, anxiety
- a change in eating habits that leads to a marked weight gain or loss
- sleeping in class
- withdrawal from friends
- rebellious behavior, sudden drop in grades, cutting class
- the start or increase of drinking and drugging
- preoccupation with death and dying
- overly sensitive to rejection
- poor thinking or concentration
- reduced ability to function in activities
- loss of interest in school work, extracurricular activities, hobbies.

For suicide -
- talking about killing oneís self
- talking as if no one cares
- preparing for the end by giving away belongings, writing goodbye letters.

As a result of the intervention, I discovered that Sonya truly enjoyed writing and had aspirations of becoming a writer. Her short story won a prize and her attitude improved. Well, it didnít really improve, but she scowled a little less frequently. She was still a teenager, after all.

I am glad, through my principalís insistence, that I didnít let Sonyaís signal go unacknowledged. Take a look at your class. Is there a student sending you a message?


Joy Jones is a third generation teacher, a playwright and the author of Between Black Women: Listening With the Third Ear, the acclaimed childrenís book, Tambourine Moon, and Private Lessons: A Book of Meditations for Teachers.  You may view her web site at: www.JoyJonesOnline.com.

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