Thirty years ago, my wife knocked softly on the door of my classroom in Southeast Alaska. I knew something must be serious, and probably not good. She wouldn't disturb the class unless she felt she absolutely had to. What had happened? Her mother? Something with my mom or dad? My brother?
"There's some news I just heard. It's not good. Maybe come on out in the hall."
"Mack killed himself last night. I'm so sorry. Both barrels of a double-barreled shotgun."
I crumpled against her. Tears sprang from my eyes. My body wrenched. Not Mack.
Mack, who was caught smoking dope around the corner of the school. After his suspension, he was given a choice: give up the keys to his Chevy Impala, park it in the school lot for the rest of the season, and continue to play basketball on my team -- or not. That dusty white Impala, with the three, round taillights on each side, was Mack's home. And Mack was proud of his home.
It happened long ago, but I can picture him watching those car keys go into the school safe, intently, hopefully, like a dog getting a treat. His fingers were long, the basketball coming off his hands so softly it couldn't help but bounce around the rim and fall through the net. Sometimes I also picture him with the shotgun, his hand around it, fingers on the triggers.
But he graduated. He did it. To this day, I'm not really sure how. He played for me the next three years and I can't remember that he ever got into trouble during basketball season again. He passed his classes. No, it wasn't easy for him, but he did it -- and for the most part completely on his own. I was really, really proud of him, and he was proud of himself.
There were other students who killed themselves over the years. Too many. Each one hurt, and hurt.
I currently work at Mt. Edgecumbe High School. Four hundred students from over 100 Alaska communities -- mostly rural -- come to Sitka to live and learn. It's a special place for adults and students. But, there is not one week in the school year that a handful or more of those 400 students aren't affected by death. Sometimes it's a natural death, which is hard enough for anyone -- much less a teenager. But just as often it's an accident to a friend or relative: A snowmachine through the ice, a fall out of a boat, a fishing injury, hunting accident or airplane wreck. It seems just as often, or more often, it's a suicide.
This past week, a couple of students were a mess. The news from Hooper Bay was tragic. And tragic again. And tragic one more time. And then tragic a fourth time.
I could ask Google and give you statistics about the high suicide rate for young people in Alaska. But I'm not really interested in telling you about statistics that you already know.
I could tell you about all the great suicide prevention work being done across the state. But I'm not all that interested in telling you about those great efforts either. What I have to say is simple: Feel for Hooper Bay.
There are all kinds of tragedies in Alaska. But small rural Alaska towns feel them with greater depth and feeling, anxiety, fear, and lots of other emotions. Relationships in tiny towns are complex, but intense. You don't read about it in the paper or on the Internet, you hear it from another human being that you know.
Take a minute, a few minutes, today, maybe tomorrow, next month, a year from now -- as many times as possible -- and think about what the proud people of Hooper Bay must be feeling. And wish them hope and better days. Maybe if enough of us Alaskans wish, something good will happen -- or maybe just something tragic won't happen. Maybe there's power in the collective desire to help Hooper Bay, even if we can't be there.
Because I guarantee the feeling doesn't go away.
Mack was just a kid who showed up in the gym with his Southeast slippers, a greasy Carhartt jacket, and a mop of black hair falling out from under a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes -- a kid who hung out on the sidelines because he didn't have money for gym shoes. But, somehow, I loved that kid like a son, and I wouldn't trade my time with him for anything else in the world.
Hooper Bay, I feel for you.
Bill Hutton is a longtime Alaska educator who lives in Sitka, where he serves as director of Mt. Edgecumbe High School. He did not write this commentary in an official capacity.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.
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