Tyler Vendetti
June 14, 2013 1:00 pm

Last month, Jessica Barrish, a teacher at York Prep, asked her students to turn in a particularly interesting homework assignment. That is, a suicide note. Since the New York Post reported on the incident, parents and teachers alike have been questioning the school’s curriculum and the thought process behind such a move.

When I first read the tagline of this story, my inner Suburban Mother persona threatened to call the school and complain over such an insensitive assignment but after reading through some articles, I became conflicted over the whole thing, mainly because I learned that these kids were not writing their own suicide notes. After reading The Secret Life Of Bees, the freshman-year students were instructed to write a suicide note from the point-of-view of one of the book’s main characters, May Boatwright. But then again, does that really excuse some of the other aspects of the story? Here’s what I figured out:

HOT

It’s unique.

There reached a certain point in high school where, if teacher assigned me a 5-paragraph essay asking me to analyze the use of different colors in *insert popular American classic here*, I wanted to set the desks on fire, drop out of school, and fill out an application for Burger King. While it may be the easiest way to accumulate grading material, 5-paragraph essays are not the most effective learning tool when that’s the only thing you’re assigning. Barrish’s assignment may have been a little out there, yes, but it probably caused the ears of every child in that room to perk up, if only for a second. It was different. Therefore, it was interesting.

It forces kids to see the consequences of suicide.

Unless you know someone who has committed or attempted suicide, you rarely get to see the aftermath of such a decision. As readers, we get to see both what the main character feels as well as the other characters in the book. Meaning, if we write a suicide note from the POV of a character who feels as though she is not loved, all the while knowing that she is, in fact, cared about by the other characters of the book, we get to see first hand the truth behind suicide: your death matters to someone, even though you may not know it.

It encourages discussion about tough topics.

Whenever the annual “Banned Books” list gets updated, I always make it a point to add each title to my summer reading list. Sure, maybe that makes me a little bit of a brat, but I’ve always found that the most impactful books are the ones that center around controversial subjects. If you can’t use writing to inform others about the world and discuss what is otherwise off limits, what’s the point?

NOT

The school did not inform the parents ahead of time.

Okay, here’s what really irks me about all of this. In high school, it seems like you have to get signed permission to do just about anything that could be considered inappropriate (like watching a PG-13 movie that had a dirty kissing scene when chances are, half the kids in the room are doing things way more explicit than that in their spare time). And yet, when this teacher decided to assign a fake suicide note assignment to her students, not one person informed the parents of the assignment ahead of time. Some adults don’t feel comfortable allowing their children to partake in such controversial assignments. Plus, if a mom or dad happened to find the note laying around the house with no prior explanation about it, they may mistake it for the real thing and the child may be subject to a parental breakdown later.

It could inspire real suicidal thoughts.

If you asked me to write down a list of all of my struggles, by the end of it, I’d be curled up in a ball in my bedroom soaking my pillow in tears and questioning why I wasn’t born richer or more like Tina Fey. When you ask students to record a character’s reasons for suicide, and they happen to notice some similarities, the leap from “fictional problems” to “personal problems” becomes significantly shorter.

It’s not really appropriate for young kids.

The students who received this assignment were only about 14 or 15 years old. While they may be old enough to understand “That’s What She Said” jokes and discuss TV show love triangles, they may not be emotionally ready for darker topics like suicide. But then again, they may also need to be exposed to this topic to more fully understand it.

As much as I appreciate the creativity of the assignment and its ability to encourage a discussion about such a sensitive topic early on, I’ve ultimately decided that this assignment falls under the NOT category for two reasons. First, I think it’s preposterous that the parents weren’t fully informed about this. They’re paying thousands of dollars for their students to attend this school. The least you could do is tell them when their kids will be penning fake suicide letters. And second, the age still seems a bit young to me. I might have been more open to this assignment if it were given to juniors or seniors but freshman seem too young.

But what are your thoughts? Was this assignment HOT or NOT?

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