Belmont Hill All-School Meeting, 5 November 2006
We come together this morning as a school community, in shock and confusion and pain, to mourn the loss of one of our own, Sixth Former Tom Fuss. As you know, we are not a school that is bound by a single religious tradition, but we are a spiritual community, and today we turn to that spiritual realm for guidance, help, support.
There are so many questions; there is so much that is difficult to fathom.
For some of you boys this is, I know, the first time that you have ever had to deal with death – or at least a death that is local, close, immediate, real. We understand death in the abstract – soldiers or civilians in a distant war, a fire, a flood, a train wreck – but this is real and way too close to home. Seventeen year-old boys are not supposed to die. And even more immediate, especially for you Sixth Formers, Tommy’s classmates: on Friday Tommy was in school with you, taking notes in BC Calc and Art History. Today in each class there will be an empty chair.
How did this happen? How could this happen? We have to confront the fact that Tom died by suicide, that he took his own life. Did that happen out of the blue? Yes and no. We know now that Tom had been up and down in recent weeks. Some of that had to do with a girlfriend; but there was much more. The school had provided care and support for Tom; so had his family. In fact, Tom’s parents, who have been extraordinarily loving and kind with boys and families and faculty over this last painful weekend, want to let the school know that Tom had been under the treatment of an adolescent psychiatrist for an illness termed clinical depression.
Still, the school and Tom’s doctor and his parents felt he was moving in a good direction, and so did his closest friends, who told some of us yesterday that they had seen no signs – none. So part of what is difficult this morning is that we have to recognize that each person has an intensely private life: there are recesses and corners of a person’s mind and soul that others just cannotknow, even others who are closest in the world to that person. That is a scary thought, but that is part of what we have to grapple with today.
How did Tom die? We know that Tom’s end was peaceful, not violent, from carbon monoxide poisoning, from fumes that built up in his garage at home when he pulled the car inside and left the motor running. We know that Tom had thought about this for some time, for he left notes for his family and friends – loving notes. He left a quote on his Facebook page that left no doubt that he was taking this step deliberately. We cannot know the pain he must have been in to take this step, but his words, posted publicly – “Tom is drifting through an ethereal world in peace” – reflect a little of what he was thinking, and perhaps what he was hoping for, through this act.
What does it mean to be suicidal? It means Tom felt that, for whatever collection of reasons, that life was too painful to keep living. That is a horrifying thought, but Tom is not unique. For some people, the pain of human experience overrides our natural instinct to live.
Existentialists note that it is not unusual to contemplate the question of suicide; in fact, they would call this the fundamental question of our lives. Why do I live? Why should I live? What is so awful for us today is that, while we all have abundant, positive answers to those questions,
Tom did not. And Tom came from a loving family; had a great group of close friends; was very smart; had energy and his own distinctive style and passions; had, yes, lots to live for. But he did not see it that way.
So now we have to accept the fact of his death. How do we confront it? How do we deal with it, weave it into the fabric of our lives, try to go on? Many of us turn to prayer, to God, to a force in our lives that is greater than our comprehension as we try to comprehend something that simply does not make sense. Many of you have heard me invoke prayer to a God of a Thousand Names; in that way we honor different traditions even though we come from different religions and practices.
When many of us gathered in the Wadsworth Room on Saturday afternoon, Mr. Prenatt offered a fundamental precept of his religion that Tom is now “in a better place.” I hope that belief offers solace to many who are here in this meetinghouse. Perhaps you will think of that phrase in a different way than you have before, for Tom’s death forces each of us to think about what does happens after this life on earth – and life of course does end, sooner or later, for us all.
Buddhist philosophy would take us to a different place. With a belief that one has many lives, Buddhism teaches that death brings an end to one life and then, through rebirth, one moves on to a new life. Perhaps Tom’s pain in this life was ended and he will now have a chance to begin anew. Some here think in yet different ways.
In his brilliant and sometimes chilling play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard speaks through one of his characters as he suggests the stark finality of death. In Act III Guildenstern says: “Death is. . .not. Death isn’t. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can’t not-be on a boat….” Yet then, in his questioning, he contradicts himself, saying: “As Socrates philosophically put it, since we don’t know what death is, it is illogical to fear it. It might be. . .very nice. Certainly it is a release from the burden of life, and, for the godly, a haven and a reward.”
Which way is right? How can we understand Tom’s death? I cannot give you the answers you seek; no one can; I am not sure even Tom could. We are left with questions, so many questions.
So here we are, collectively in pain, stuggling to understand what may be ultimately unknowable. But we are going to move forward, as individuals and as a school. We have to.
We cannot pretend that something awful has not happened, but we are going to try our best to move ahead as best we can. Tom has left us in shock and in deepest sorrow. Our emotions will change as the days go by. I want you to realize that we are not all in the same place emotionally now, and we won’t be – not now, not ever. We will grieve differently in the days to come, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. I recognize that, as acute as the pain is for many of Tom’s classmates in the Sixth Form, for many of you younger students this must seem distant, odd, surreal.
Tom was a student here, yes, but he was not one with contact with you all. This loss may prove difficult for some of you in the Middle School, but we realize that for some this will pass over you and your world. And that is okay. Each of us, especially faculty and Upper Schoolers, will go through a range of emotions as we go forward. All are valid. Sadness and also anger – anger at Tom for doing this to us. Sorrow and then an absence of sorrow – as if itwere all a dream. Immediacy and distance – again, both valid. You will find yourself smiling and even laughing at moments in the days ahead, forgetting or blocking all this. That’s okay.
Don’t worry that you have the “wrong” emotions; they are all right, even if they get confusing at times.
And another point, maybe as important as any. I am guessing that all of us on the faculty, and in the Sixth Form, and perhaps some others who also knew Tom, are feeling guilty now: guilty that we did not do more, that we did not figure this out, guilty that we somehow did not act, or say, or do something to prevent this tragedy.
To the degree that I can, I want to lift that burden from your shoulders. You do not need to carry that weight. This was a young man who was not alone or isolated; he had friends and family and adults who were trying to help him and support him in many ways, in recent weeks and before. I have to say, and forgive me if this causes any pain, but my deepest understanding is that, for whatever reasons or for whatever factors, something was not well, deep within Tom, that led him to this step.
People who are healthy do not take their own lives. I am not a medical doctor, I am not a psychologist, but I have lived my professional life with boys in schools for over thirty years – and I believe that there was something affecting Tom that was not healthy and was so deep within him that all the love and support that he had was not enough. His parents have bravely let us know that they were trying to help Tom understand himself through medical care. But it wasn’t enough. I grieve for Tom; I grieve for his parents, who have to bear the most painful loss in human life, the loss of a child. I don’t know if Tom thought this step was romantic, or perhaps heroic. It was not; it was neither; it was, and is, tragic and horribly painful.
I want us to mourn Tom. He was a smart, funny, wry, terrific kid with a world of interests. I have such a strong memory of him from just ten days ago, when he represented all you students on an evening panel for parents about Facebook and MySpace down in Wadsworth.
Over one hundred parents showed up, and Tom was great: defending, politely but firmly, the right for you guys to have your own private space on the internet and your own forms of communication, away from your parents. Dr. Thompson, who moderated the panel, and I and everyone there saw a young man who was fully alert, alive and engaged. I know that many of you have other bright, happy memories: of Tom’s passion for 24 or the bowling club, of Tom in class or out, of Tom as a boy of great energy and spirit and, yes, joy.
And now he is gone. We have pain, we are scared, we have questions. No one can answer all the questions, but as we end our time together this morning, I don’t want you to fear what you don’t know. Thus I turn to a German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, and words from his book Letters to a Young Poet.
I want to beseech you to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, evolve some distant day into the answer.
In our different faith traditions, by prayer or by personal reflection, I now ask for a minute of silence as we wrestle with questions – but, more importantly, as we remember Tom Fuss.
Let me explain to you what we are going to do now, and what we are going to do today. As we leave this meetinghouse, I ask that you do so quietly. You boys should head to your advisor homerooms, where we will have some time in advisee groups before we go to classes. We will follow a regular “long school meeting” schedule, which means 35-minute classes.
All of us realize that some classes may be devoted to talking about Tom; some of you students and teachers may find it easier to head into your class lesson for the day; others may not be in any shape to meet at all. But we believe that the best way for all of us to keep going is to use the structure of the school day. That said, for any boy – or adult, for that matter – who wants some time to talk about all this or get some relief, Dr. Thompson and Ms. Schmunk are going to be in the MacPherson Room all day, and Mrs. David is going to be based in the clinic. So if you need some time out, whether to talk or just to get some space, you should feel free to take it. Sixth Formers, if you want to use free periods to head off campus, you may do so – but only if you, first, sign out and, second, go with someone else. I don’t anyone out there alone. If you have further questions, just ask any teacher; we are all here to help.
What will tomorrow bring? We need to take this one day at a time, one step at a time. I know this is difficult for us all, but I take comfort in knowing that there is not a school community in the world where I would rather be, in good times or in tough times. This is one of those tough times, but I am proud of you all, and especially the Sixth Form, for gathering and helping each other and the Fusses. Keep faith, and we will get through this together.
Richard Melvoin Headmaster,
Belmont Hill School