Resilience is sometimes astounding, and we need to acknowledge it.
A boy, in flames, is running, screaming, across the parking lot of his school on an otherwise ordinary morning. The image evokes Vietnam or Bosnia, but it is Charleston, South Carolina, Wednesday, December 8. The school happens to be the number-one ranked Academic Magnet High School in the United States, and it shares a campus with a highly regarded School of the Arts. The burning boy is running toward the magnet school’s front doors.
Hundreds of students, teachers, administrators, and staff come to the windows. Some of them jump out of first floor classrooms and run to the boy with blankets or fire extinguishers. They subdue him and douse the flames. An ambulance rushes him to the Medical University of South Carolina, where he is stabilized and met by his family, then Medivac-ed to Augusta, where the nearest top-tier burn clinic will care for him. But he is burned over more than two thirds of his body and dies the next day.
This, it became clear, was not an accident but an act of self-inflicted violence and, too, of psychological damage inflicted on family, friends, school-mates, teachers-hundreds of others. But this is not the story of one boy’s anguish; it is the story of the response to his violent and painful act. And it’s one that all of us, just simply as human beings, can take comfort in and be proud of.
I know the story because my niece is a senior there, and vice president of the Student Council.
Shortly after the ambulance left, stunned teachers and students who had tried to help the boy came back into the school-although one teacher was seen briefly prostrate on the tarmac sobbing. The school was in lockdown for three hours while police investigated, and then returned to its schedule, although students were given the option to leave. Counselors converged on the campus from all over the city.
But throughout the lockdown, students were texting and tweeting, their network awakening like a huge wounded animal, an organism with an adaptive mind of its own. They were already logging comments on the Charleston Post-Courier website, and by the next day two Facebook pages had been created and were brimming with the verbal equivalent of tears. There were some ignorant comments by outsiders about the boy or the school, but most of the messages posted showed compassion, solidarity, and strength.
They also showed affection for the boy, Aaron Williams, a junior in the magnet school. He was known as Boombox Kid because although otherwise quiet, he played his boombox loudly during the changes between classes. That’s the kind of school it is. Aaron was different, but so is everyone else in the school in his or her own way, and they tolerated him as they tolerated each other, skeptically but with respect.
Ater his death they piled flowers on his empty parking spot with the chalked message “We [heart] you,” beside a drawing of a boombox. They stood around it playing music from a real one. They hung a huge poster in the hallway, showing a boombox with two hearts in place of speakers, and the words, “Don’t Stop the Beat.” They lowered the school flag to half mast.
Aaron’s father, an Air Force officer, held a press conference the day after his son’s death. “Our hearts are broken,” he said, “that Aaron was struck with a despair so dark that he could not see beyond it, in spite of the love, support and counseling he received. While his act was in no way a solution to his struggles, the dramatic nature of his death was his attempt to reach out to as many hearts as possible and to emphasize the importance of living lives of love and compassion.”
And Aaron himself left an explanatory message, which his father paraphrased and quoted: Aaron “was suddenly confused and felt unable to help himself. He then expressed his concern for other kids who might be having feelings like he did, and he said he hoped they could be ‘helped in a very confidential manner.’”
The forty-five counselors who came to the school-not just from all over the school system but from MUSC, the Crisis Chaplaincy, and other agencies-were needed. There were grave dangers: a boy at another school in the Charleston area hanged himself the following day, perhaps influenced by the publicity about Aaron.
But when we think about stress, we need to think too about resilience, about the power of the human spirit, including the teenage one, to rise and assert the value of life in the face of even the most tragic challenges. Kids-most kids-are built to lean forward into life. Aaron was not one of those in the end, and many like him can use all the professional help they can get.
Yet for most of his surviving fellow students, that kind of help is an assist to a surge of self-help and collective, spontaneous, mutual support that is in children’s natures and in some ways serves them better than we can. We need to be sure we are harnessing it, not trying to replace it.
On Thursday, when Aaron was still alive, the whole school wore white, a show of solidarity-and the opposite of black. On Friday, after his death, still spurning black, the whole school wore red. It signified, they explained, a beating heart.
The beat goes on.
Note: By invitation, I’ve started a blog on the Psychology Today website, and my latest post can be read there or here, although different comments may be posted there.