It all started quite innocently. Mr. Basen was always trying to come up with a new assignment to improve his fifth graders’ writing skills. And one night as he was grading the chapter six spelling test, he noticed Julie Finkel misspelled word number seventeen, obituary. It reminded Mr. Basen of an assignment he had in high school. He had to write his own obituary. Mr. Basen didn’t put too much care into what he wrote, but there was one girl, what was her name, who read hers aloud in class. She was reciting how she left behind a loving family when she broke down in hysterics in front of the entire class. This was exactly what Mr. Basen wanted. An exercise that would show these young adults the power of the written word.
But Mr. Basen was not a conservative teacher. He never did things the way his teachers had done them. After all, his teachers had not left the slightest impression on him. Any activity any other teacher in the history of western society had assigned would have to be altered slightly for Mr. Basen’s class.
So on Tuesday morning under the fluorescent lights Mr. Basen did not write on the blackboard, “Homework for tonight—write your own obituary.” Instead he scribbled in chalk, “Tonight’s assignment—Write your own suicide note.”
As he crossed that last t, Jenny Steinbaum in the second row already had her hand raised. “Mr. Basen, how long does this have to be?”
“How long!” He hated that question. “How long does it take to say good-bye to everything and everybody you’ve ever known? Would you list in great detail everything you hate about the world or would you say, ‘Life sucks! Make sure somebody feeds my fish.’”
They all laughed. They always laughed when he used the word sucks. He didn’t mind using the lowest common denominator if it got them excited about English.
And some of the students were excited. They had great fun imagining what they would say right before they ended it all. Others weren’t excited. They played video games that night instead. They figured they would crank out their homework in the morning before Mr. Basen collected it. But Mr. Basen wouldn’t collect this assignment for quite some time because Camilla Green asked her son, Gene, if he had any homework that night.
“No. I just got to write a suicide note.” He said as he slurped in his marshmallowy cereal.
She couldn’t even exclaim a “What?” Mrs. Green was running though her mind all the mistakes she made that would lead her eleven year old son to suicide.
“Mr. Basen’s always making us do stupid things like this.”
“Mr. Basen told you to write a suicide note?” At the open house Mr. Basen struck her as a good, young, bearded teacher. He was full of enthusiasm which could be contagious. Was he trying to spread despair to these young, flexible minds? Or was he sidestepping the electric chair by forming an alibi in advance of him poisoning the kids? This was a fear she couldn’t keep to herself. In twenty-seven minutes all the mothers in the neighborhood knew about the assigned suicide notes.
That next morning Mr. Basen drove his Chevrolet fueled by excitement just as he always did. Was this the day he would reach them all, he wondered. He whistled Dixie as he walked down the corridor to room lucky number seven. As he unlocked the door he noticed none of his early bird students were waiting in the hallway. Then he noticed his classroom door was unlocked and Ms. Jenkins, the principal’s secretary, was sitting at his desk. She looked embarrassed to be caught in his place. “Good morning.” he said.
“Hi.” She smiled but she couldn’t look at his face for too long. “Mr. Balzac wants to see you.”
No matter how old you are, your heart still skips a beat when you’re being sent to the principal’s office. Somehow through all his nervousness Mr. Basen uttered, “Thank you.”
He turned around, but Ms. Jenkins wouldn’t allow such a polite man to be ambushed. She warned him, “A lot of parents were mad about your homework.”
“Am I not assigning enough? Am I giving out too much? What is it?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
Mr. Basen straightened his necktie and knocked on the door marked, “Theodore Balzac, principal of Distinguished Elementary School”.
“Come in.” That gruff voice told Mr. Basen he was in trouble. So did the angry faces of all those parents he just noticed waiting outside his office. He remembered some of them from open house. Mrs. Whitehead he knew very well. She picked up her son, Henry every Wednesday, so he could attend equestrian lessons. She always joked with him, now she looked like she wanted to hurt him. But Mr. Basen remained composed. He wished the parents a good morning and then walked into Mr. Balzac’s office and took a seat. He stared at the photograph of Mr. Balzac in a hard hat with a group of students at a construction site rather than look at the man himself.
“I’m sure you know why you’re here.”
This could have turned into a comedy routine. Mr. Basen would have accepted a long scolding for what he would assume to be the crime of not assigning enough homework. But instead he admitted, “No, I’m not sure.”
“Your homework assignment yesterday was not appropriate for elementary school students.”
Mr. Basen ran through his mind all the homework from yesterday. The periodic table? Fractions? “The suicide notes?”
“The suicide notes. What the hell were you thinking?”
“All those parents outside are mad at me because of it?”
“Yeah, they’re mad. What the hell were you thinking? We’ve got another parent who was very mad.” Mr. Balzac unfolded that day’s edition of The Daily Rumor. There was a column in the local section by George Resal, father of George Resal Jr.. The headline of his column read, “Teaching Suicide”.
Mr. Basen couldn’t comprehend all the fuss. “Could I please speak to the parents?”
Mr. Balzac thought for a second. He considered himself a fair man and this could lead to a fair resolution. If he offends the parents any further Mr. Balzac will suspend the sick flake. If they forgive him, the edgy fireplug gets to stay. The principal pushed a button on his phone. “Ms. Jenkins, could you show the parents into my office.”
The door swung open. One by one the mothers walked in, each angrier than the one before. After they settled in Mr. Basen asked them, “What exactly was wrong with my teaching?”
They all tisk not knowing where to start. Camilla Green found her words first. “We don’t want you encouraging our kids to kill themselves. We love our kids, we don’t want you telling them suicide is OK.”
“I don’t want them to kill themselves.” Mr. Basen couldn’t believe he was the bad guy. “Actually, I thought by writing suicide notes it would stop them from wanting to ever kill themselves. They would see what they love, honor, and cherish and never want to leave it. And they would come to that conclusion through words. Isn’t that my job when I teach English? To teach them how the word is mightier than the gun or the noose? I assure you that if you give your children the chance to complete this assignment, they will not die. In fact they will live, as writers.” He wasn’t sure where that speech came from, but it worked. Everyone was clapping. the parents. Mr. Balzac. Ms. Jenkins, who overheard it via her speaker phone. Everyone, but Camilla Green.
Mrs. Green didn’t like suicide notes. Not since that autumn day when she and her ex-husband returned to her parents’ house with groceries. The house was quiet so she assumed no one was home. Knocking on her parents’ bedroom door wouldn’t have mattered though. Her father was laying on the bed dead. Shotgun in one hand and a piece of his brain in the other. She never knew there were so many colors in our head. Some purple was splattered on the neatly written suicide note that asked, “Where did I go wrong?”
That torturous moment fueled her campaign. “This is not acceptable Mr. Basen. Our children are taught by the media, video games, and gangster rap that life is cheap. I don’t want Gene learning in school too that life isn’t precious.”
“But that’s not my intention!”
“Mr. Basen, this is a public school. And if the public isn’t pleased with your performance, you have no business teaching in the public’s school.”
Camilla Green realized her viewpoint needed clarification. “I don’t want to see him fired. I just only want him teaching positive messages.”
Mr. Balzac tapped his pen against the desk as he mused. “Does anyone have anything else to add?” No one did. “Fine then. Mr. Basen, go attend to your class and make sure this does not become an issue again.”
Mr. Basen nodded and walked awkwardly out of the room. He still felt uncomfortable interacting with adults. He had no trouble with kids. It was people with pension plans and mortgages and narrow ways of seeing the world that made him scared. His uneasiness became more apparent when Ms. Jenkins gushed, “You must be some kind of teacher to put so much thought into what you’re teaching?”
“I suppose.” He didn’t know how to accept flattery, but he did know how to ask for something he wanted. “Could I borrow your newspaper?”
She handed it over. He flipped past the front page, the food section, and sports. On the local page, he found what he wanted. He read in the hallway as he walked to class.
It’s sure tough raising a kid today. Especially raising an optimistic kid. Back in caveman days when I was an impressionable youth, my parents didn’t have to cover my eyes every other minute. Sure Wile E. Coyote could be violent and the Wicked Witch of the West was awfully scary, but for the most part the media, peers, and role models provided me with uplifting messages and a positive outlook on life.
Now we have to worry about Nazis spreading their hate on television talk shows. Child molesters seduce our children on the internet. Video games train our kids to be soulless killing machines. Is it any wonder that we live in the Golden Age of cynicism? I just got the crème de la crème yesterday.
Over dinner I asked my ten year-old son what his homework was. I almost needed the Heimlich maneuver when he told me. His homework was to write an imaginary suicide note. This is how hopeless our lives have become? Our children learn in school how to fold when life kicks them in the family jewels? School was supposed to be a place of unlimited possibilities not a dungeon of doom and gloom…
Mr. Basen reached his class halfway through the column. His students were all out of their seats chattering and throwing paper at one another. They were happy. His homework didn’t turn them into a death worshipping cult. But then why was Teresa Rodriguez wearing all black and keeping to herself today? No time to continue his analysis, the bell just rang. Time to stretch their skulls. He shut the door but he couldn’t bring himself to tell them how his assignment was wrong since he didn’t know why it was wrong himself. He was glad he had time to stall since they didn’t do English until after lunch anyway.
So Mr. Basen taught, but he wasn’t all there. His students could smell it and took advantage. They passed notes and talked to each other without worries of getting their names written on the board. After reviewing mixed fractions Gina Rasco forced a decision when she pulled out her English homework and asked the teacher if he was collecting it.
“Class, I’ve got an announcement. It turns out you don’t have to turn in last night’s English homework.”
Gina raised her hand, “Mr. Basen do the people who did our homework get extra credit?”
It broke his heart. “No I can’t accept it. It turns out some people don’t think you’re mature enough to be creative writers. They don’t think fifth graders can differentiate homework from reality.”
“What!” The class was in outrage.
He fed off their anger. “Didn’t I always teach you how powerful writing can be? That’s why it’s important to have good writing skills and perfect grammar so you can use words to your advantage.” He knew he was reaching them. “Some people don’t want kids to know how much power they have. So they’ve threatened to fire me if I collect your suicide notes. That’s why I guess we’ll have to open our books to page 113 and learn about adverbs. Open your books everyone.”
“That’s not fair!”
Excitement was brewing in Mr. Basen’s mind. “If it’s not fair I want you to write letters to Principal Balzac explaining why it’s not fair.”
The kids, bless their little hearts, did as their teacher instructed. They wrote and wrote and the letters were collected and the other subjects were covered and the bell rang just as it always did. The kids ran out. After all they had video games to play, bikes to ride, and mischief to find. Mr. Basen was too old for such nonsense so he was the last out the door. The last to see the news cameras and reporters waiting for him.
“There he is.” They encircled him and interrogated. “Mr. Basen, Channel Six Eyewitness News, can I ask a few questions?”
“Mr. Basen, what’s your agenda behind the suicide notes?”
“Are you a government agent for population control?”
The attention was a bit overwhelming for this suburban teacher. Part of him, the educator, wanted to inform the world why his homework was positive. The part of him that paid the rent pushed harder. “I have no comment. No comment.” He used his student’s letters to the principal as a shield from the camera lenses and walked to the car. They followed, so he jogged, and then sprinted.
Twenty-three messages were awaiting him on his answering machine. Mr. Basen didn’t think there were 23 people who even knew his phone number. Every message was predictably the same. Members of the media wanting to know why. Parents of his students wanting to know why. Why? Why only now did people care what their children were learning? Only now they care that he has been teaching.
He turned on his TV and just as he had secretly been hoping, they were talking about him. The camera focused on a pretty Asian lady in a conservative dress. “Before all those gruesome school shootings, we always thought schools were safe. Now it turns out parents not only need to worry about violent students, they also need to lay awake at night thinking and psychopath teachers. This is what parents of Mr. Basen’s fifth grade class at Distinguished Elementary School are fearing. Just yesterday, Mr. Basen assigned his class of ten and eleven year-olds to write a suicide note. Let’s hear some comments from the students.”
Cut to little Judy Reindorf, “It was just like a normal homework.”
The reporter asked, “You don’t think it’s dangerous?”
“I don’t know. I guess.”
Cut to Robert Wesson. “Yeah, Mr. Basen’s pretty creepy. He probably wants us all to kill ourselves.”
Cut to Jennifer White. “I was going to kill myself, but after writing a suicide note, I know suicide is a bad idea.”
Cut back to the pretty reporter holding her ear in one hand and the microphone in another. “As you can see there is a mixed reaction to the teacher’s motives. Since Mr. Basen declines to be interviewed, we must expect the worst intentions and pray for the best. This is Jennifer Chen reporting live for Channel Nine Action News.”
Mr. Basen switched to another station that was talking about him. He was fascinated by himself, but his narcissism was interrupted by the door knocking. Probably someone else looking for a soundbite or a hard hitting investigation, he figured. He warily opened the door to see a woman holding a tray of peanut butter cookies.
“Hi, Mr. Basen.” she said.
“Ms. Jenkins!” It was the principal’s secretary. “How does everyone know my phone number and where I live?”
“I don’t know how all the smart people do it, but I just looked in the phone book.” Sarcasm didn’t register in his mind. “I baked you some cookies.”
“Oh… um thanks. And what do you want in return?”
“Nothing. I thought this would be a tough time for you and you could use some cheering up.”
“And maybe I would start talking to you and you could sell my story to the reporters.”
“No! I just never knew what a dedicated teacher you were and it made me want to get to know you better. But I was dumb. Here.” She handed over the tray of warm cookies. “I’m going to go.”
He didn’t let her get very far. “Ms. Jenkins… wait.”
She waited. “It’s Molly.”
“Molly, I can’t eat these I’m diabetic.” She walked back with a head full of steam ready to grab her cookies and smack him with the tray. Mr. Basen saved himself a head injury by saying, “But I’d like to talk to you while I watch you eat them.”
She couldn’t conceal her smile as she entered his house. They had such a nice time the next morning they carpooled to work. They left early so Mr. Basen could hand Mr. Balzac the letters his students wrote. But the two early birds couldn’t find any parking at the school. Trailers that doubled as billboards for television stations took some spots, parent protestors took others, and supporters of family values squatted on the rest.
Mr. Basen parked across the street on a private citizen’s front lawn. the concerned property owner would later call a tow truck which inspired tomorrow’s public opinion poll. “Would you let Mr. Basen, the suicide teacher, park on your front lawn?” 73 percent would say yes.
Mr. Basen neared the madness and heard the chants, “Three… Five… Seven… Nine… we don’t need no suicide.” It amazed him that nine could rhyme with suicide. He wondered aloud, “This can’t really be all about me, is it?”
Molly Jenkins was in a great mood. She kissed his beard and said, “Why shouldn’t it be about you, you’re special.”
He blushed then he expressed himself. “I can’t believe all these people think I had a sinister agenda. I didn’t have any meaning behind this. I just wanted good writers in my class.”
“So what’s all the fuss?”
“You think maybe one of the kids killed themselves?”
He couldn’t tell she was joking. He muttered, “Oh no.” And he imagined a spot in hell kept extra warm for him. He ran to the classroom praying for perfect attendance. The reporters recognized him and he was smothered by questions. His response was in the form of a question, “Nobody died, did they? Tell me, did anyone die?” No reply from the journalists. And Mr. Basen realized there was only one way to find the answer. He walked to the classroom but an elderly man in glasses blocked the way. Mr. Basen tried to shove him out, but the man was stronger than he looked. He had the power of Jesus behind him.
The old man spoke, “I can’t let you through that door.”
“I can’t let you go in there and teach Satan’s ways to our future.”
“Satan?” And Mr. Basen remembered it was the devil that tempted Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge. He looked at the man of God and asked, “Did anybody die?”
“If they don’t enter the kingdom of heaven it will be because…” The man of God backed away with those words giving Mr. Basen a chance to sneak by him and sneak into his class. He dreaded that the holy man used the pronoun, they. Please don’t let there have been a mass suicide.
“I’m sure they’re all OK.” Molly whispered into his ear. With all that craziness, he didn’t realize she was with him every step of the way.
“You better go.” he told her. All he wanted to see were the kids. The rest of the world could slit their wrists just let his 28 students come to school healthy and hearty. He would gladly kill himself if it meant none of his children would have to die.
“Good morning Mr. Basen.” In came Gina Rasco.
“Good morning Mr. Basen.” In came Enrique Manifosi. Mr. Basen’s mood swung higher and higher as more students arrived. As the bell rang only two students were missing. Gene Green and Teresa Rodriguez.
Mr. Basen tightened his necktie and wished his class, “Good morning. That’s quite a mess out there, isn’t it?” The students made wisecracks and Mr. Basen laughed. But then he got down to business. “Does anyone know where Gene and Teresa are?”
George Resal Jr. shot out, “Gene’s lucky. his Mom wouldn’t let him come to school today.”
“That’s not fair.”
“What a cool Mom.”
“Alright. that’s enough. Does anyone know where Teresa is?”
You would have heard a tear drop if anyone was crying. Then the door swung open. But instead of ponytailed Teresa, it was balding Mr. Balzac, his face an angry shade of red. “Mr. Basen I’d like to speak to you in my office.”
“About what, sir?”
“What do you think?”
“Well sir, if this is about the children, I think it’s only fair they get to hear.” Besides Mr. Basen knew he couldn’t stand up to the principal without the children around.
“For Pete’s sake man, they’re only ten years-old. And it’s not just about the children now. It’s about the media, the parents…”
“With all due respect sir, if I leave these kids alone, who knows how many of them might try to kill themselves.” All the students went, “Oooo!” As though this was another schoolyard brawl.
“Mr. Basen, you’re making this school look sinister and foolish. Neither of those words are acceptable adjectives for an elementary school. If you wish to continue teaching here you must…”
“I must what?” Mr. Basen’s voice was even louder then when he screamed on the roller coaster ride on the field trip to the county fair. Loud enough so the reporters outside could record it with their fancy machines. “I must teach these children according to the curriculum? I must teach these kids your way so they hate to learn? I must…”
“Leave. You must leave. You are obviously a sick individual, Mr. Basen. You are not a good influence for the children. So you must leave.”
Mr. Basen looked across the classroom and could see the only lesson his students were learning was how not to deal with an authority figure. He wondered if maybe he needs them more than they need him. “Fine. but first could I have a minute alone with the kids.”
“No. Didn’t you just hear me call you a sick individual. You can’t be trusted alone with kids.”
“Right. Right.” He went to get his briefcase. Inside were the letters from the students. Letters about how they were grown up enough to write suicide notes. They stayed inside the briefcase as Mr. Basen left his classroom for the last time.
The reporters heard the whole exchange, but still they wanted to know more. “Mr. Basen, do you agree with Principal Balzac’s decision?” “What’s your next step?” “What do you think about the death penalty?”
He looked out at the sea of information gatherers, past the protestors, and looked out at the world. The world that calls teaching a noble profession even if all you’re teaching are the same mistakes over and over again. Mr. Basen had words for this world. He uttered them softly since there were no children around to make him feel bigger. “I’m just a teacher. I guess I teach by example…” His words stopped as he eyed a little girl dodging the preoccupied adults.
She walked past everyone but Mr. Basen who stopped her cold. “Teresa, you’re late.”
She responded quietly out of shyness toward the cameras. “I woke up late.”
“Well you missed all the excitement.” He walked with her away from the media. Neither of them felt too comfortable around all the onlookers. “I was fired. I’m not a good role model for you kids apparently.”
“But I did my homework. I wrote my suicide note.”
“Hey, Teresa, it’s not your fault. It’s nobody’s fault.”
She came pretty close to a smile. “It’s everybody’s fault. Could I… read you my note?”
All the reporters and cameramen who had been inching closer and closer with their recording devices prayed he would say yes. God came through for them as Mr. Basen nodded. “Dear world, You’re an alright place, but I think there might be better places. Places that are prettier and nicer and where nobody calls you names. I don’t know when I’m going to die, but one day I will and I won’t miss you world. Will you miss me? Teresa Rodriguez”
Suddenly Mr. Basen wondered if everyone was right and this assignment was too dangerous. “Teresa were you planning on killing yourself?”
All the reporters held their breaths. “Maybe. It depends on how much extra credit I get.” And Mr. Basen laughed. For the first time in a long time he laughed. And the world was there to see it live on TV.