The last time I saw Fraser Mitchell was a sunny September day about 8 years ago. We were almost 2 weeks into the new school year and I was still learning about my students and trying to connect with them. Fraser was more elusive than many.
Physically small, and not academically strong, he was more interested in his peers, and showing them how cool he was, than getting to know me or developing his academic skills. He rode a skateboard and loved the TV show “Dragon Ball Z”.
At the end of a glorious warm day, I took the class out to the field and we played soccer on fresh-cut grass. Fraser, for the first time, “lost himself” in the game. He forgot trying to be cool and just had fun. He was wearing pants two sizes too big which made it hard to run, but he kept at it and gave his all. At the end of the game, as the bell rang, he was red-faced and sweaty from the game. He gave me a big smile and a wave (the first), hitched up his pants, and headed off home. I felt like we had out first “connection”, which made me smile.
I didn’t think anymore about it, just another interaction that day, though when I look back now it seems significant and sepia-toned because of what happened after. It was really just another normal day with another student, one of thousands I’ve had.
The next morning, as I drove to school, I noticed one of the houses close to school was surrounded by police tape and two police cruisers were parked outside. I was at school early so not many people were there, but when I walked into school an ashen faced principal pulled me aside and told me the reason for the police tape. Fraser had killed himself.
There was no official public statement of what had happened to Fraser. No newspaper story, no inquest or YouTube video. Everything I remember is a pastiche of what others told me. Some of it is probably true and some of it is rumour or worse, made up. I heard there was bullying involved but I don’t know if that’s true and I don’t think I ever will.
For a while things were a blur. There were meetings with his classmates who were encouraged to talk about how they were feeling by the “Crisis Response Team”. There were trips to the gym where upset adolescent boys punched blue mats in anger and asked me “Why?”. There was a staff meeting where many staff and the principal broke down weeping as a police officer explained what they knew, which wasn’t much. There was a memorial assembly where I spoke about a boy I’d barely known to try and comfort his family and give what had happened some context and meaning to the school. There was a memorial stone outside the school that was dedicated with a plaque to Fraser. There was a funeral with an open casket and sobbing students. Mostly I remember being numb as I tried to put my feelings aside and support everyone else who was dealing with what had happened.
Through all of this there was Fraser’s locker. His locker was right outside the classroom door. We passed it multiple times on the way into and out of class every day. It was full of Fraser’s things. His pencil-case, his journal, his unfinished assignments and his lunch bag. No body knew what to do with it. It was a constant reminder of what had happened. It felt disrespectful to empty it. Students decorated it with cards and streamers, which almost made it worse, more noticeable. Someone emptied it, I don’t know who or when. I could never assign the locker to someone else, but I’m sure some student is happily using it now (I no longer teach at the school) and has no idea of its history.
For a long time I felt partly responsible for what happened to Fraser, even though I rationally knew I shouldn’t. Like many who become teachers I do what I do partly because I want to make a positive impact in the lives of those I teach. Here was someone who really needed someone and I didn’t/couldn’t connect with. In my most important role I’d failed.
What happened with Fraser makes it hard for me to join the public outcry over Amanda Todd. It’s complicated.
I resent the attention her death has received. I wonder if her death is more important or significant than the millions of teens who committed suicide before and after her. Are they less deserving of the outcry than she is? Do all teen suicide victims get an internet campaign now? Where was the outcry over Fraser?
I am also keenly aware that the people who knew & worked with her, her family & friends, councillors, teachers, etc. are all victims too. In a few days Amanda Todd will fade from the headlines and things will resume as normal. In a year ‘the public’ won’t remember who she is or what happened, but teens will still be killing themselves.
I don’t know what to do about that.