Good Trouble

“I’m a burden to everybody,” she began when I answered the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “Everyone would be better off if I wasn’t here.” “Are you considering suicide?” I asked. She paused, and quietly admitted she was. I asked her first name and age, for familiarity and a bit of context. “I’m Sue (not her real name) and I’m almost 14.” It broke my heart that a person so young believes others would be better off if she ended her life.

I asked why she feels a burden to others. “I frequently get in trouble at school and it’s really hard on my mother.” When I asked for an example, she related the following: “We’re reading To Kill a Mockingbird in class and the author uses the ‘N’ word throughout the book. My teacher insisted that, given the time it was written, and to make the story real, it was necessary to use that word. That upset me. I raised my hand and asserted there should have been a way to write the story without the ‘N’ word. The teacher said I was wrong, sent me to the principal, and he called my mother.”

“I can see merit in both sides,” I replied, “but your teacher was unwilling to engage in a discussion?” “No. She just told me I was wrong.”

“If I asked your Mother, would she say you are a burden.” “Probably not, but even if she doesn’t say it, I wonder if she sometime thinks I am.”

Since the example she gave me was over an issue she felt was important, I asked if she also gets into trouble for things that may be silly or trivial. She said that seldom happens. “Most often I get into trouble because of something I believe is wrong. When I have something to say, and speak up, even my friends roll their eyes. I make everyone’s’ lives difficult”

“Would it be fair to suggest you try to make the world a better place?” I asked. When she admitted she did, a thought occurred to me. “I can’t recall his name, but a black congressman passed away recently who did change the world.” “Do you mean John Lewis?” she asked. I was stunned. “You’re 13 and you know of John Lewis?” She said she did but didn’t know too much about him. I told her that one of his favored principles was “Make good trouble.” I suggested she might be doing what John Lewis asked of each of us.

“People who change the world, often make those around them uncomfortable. It’s impossible to nudge the world in new directions without being a burden in some lives,” I suggested. “If you want to change the world, be prepared to make good trouble. If you study the lives of activists, I think you’ll find they made many people uncomfortable.” She told me she just might do that.

When she told me she felt better and was no longer considering suicide, even though I wanted to hear more from this inspiring young woman, we ended the call.

Author, educator and philosopher, Neil Postman once wrote, “Children are the living messages we send to a world we will not see.” If, in our few moments together, that young woman began to discover a sense of who she is, and who she might become, perhaps I was blessed to witness a budding John Lewis, Greta Thunberg, Stacey Abrams, or Malala Yousafzai. If, in my lifetime, I do nothing more than send that one message to a future I will not see, perhaps that is enough.

3 thoughts on “Good Trouble”

  1. What a beautiful, inspiring story, Roger. The incidence itself was packed full of meaning. Your telling of it only added to that.

    What you gave that young woman in that time together was a priceless gift. You affirmed her and her thoughts and feelings.

    It makes me sad and also so aware when I talk to people who grow up without any affirmations of the goodness inside them, especially when it looks different.

    I see myself in that young woman but with a big difference. When I spoke up and my mother was called, she always stood up for me and suggested that the other party involved perhaps needed to rethink their position and see the incidence from another perspective.

    I am so glad that you where there for her. I applaud you for the many years that you have contributed your time and your perspective to the Suicide Prevention Hotline.

  2. “If, in my lifetime, I do nothing more than send that one message to a future I will not see, perhaps that is enough.”

    Yes, enough and not a trivial legacy by any means. I think that is what old Socrates was doing, when he paced around the Agora of Athens posing questions for the young men who gathered around him to discuss and listen to one anther. For his trouble he was charged with sedition/corrupting the youth. Socrates was satisfied to plead guilty as the charge was an honorable, accurate description of his intention. Good Trouble as John Lewis would have put it.

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