Context Matters: 9th Graders Write Suicide Notes for English Assignment
The headline "School Requests Students Write Suicide Notes" seemed a bit too alarming.
As if students didn’t already feel fed up with this world enough after a day of school, one teacher decided to give an assignment to drive them over the edge. Jessica Barrish, a literature teacher at York Prep in New York City, told her students to write a suicide note for homework. The class had been reading The Secret Life of Bees, which is, subjectively speaking, the most depressing book ever, and Barrish thought that writing a suicide note would help them better understand character May Boatwright. To do so, the students were required to give reasons that would justify killing themselves — from the point of view of the character, of course.
The parents of the students, who thankfully did not come across the notes without context, were oblivious to the problem until the New York Post heard about it and asked for their opinions. To say they weren’t pleased would be an understatement.
“We thought this was such an outrageous assignment for a 14-year-old to get,” one father said. “We pay a lot of money to send our kids to the school.”
Surprisingly, this has become a not so uncommon assignment. A French middle school teacher was suspended for giving a similar assignment. Simon Critchley, a philosophy professor at New School (also in NYC), has taught an entire workshop course on writing suicide notes. “I don’t see why this is inappropriate at all. If it is, then suicide is a taboo, and I simply think we have to think rationally about our taboos,” Critchley said.
While tackling taboos is a topic teachers have the right to talk about, doing so with an assignment like this serves better as nightmare fuel than it does an important lesson. But the New School’s headmaster had no problem with this assignment, so this wasn’t career suicide for Barrish.