Triumph of the (Teenage) Human Spirit

Resilience is sometimes astounding, and we need to acknowledge it.

school-group-wearing-red-c-uA 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.


  1. Clare says:

    I’m reminded of the “It gets better” campaign to reassure gay teens that it is possible to find acceptance, friendship and a welcome in adult life. At my age, I know how utterly true it is that time heals wounds (not all of them, of course, but at least some of them). But I imagine that’s a hard sell for a teenager, whose life is so utterly caught up with the here and now. Is it the wisdom of age that reassures us to wait… just wait… or, rather more prosaically, is it that older people just lack the energy of youth to take matters into their own hands?

  2. Marie Manning, Ph.D. says:

    As a parent of a student at the magnet, I appreciate your statements and agree that the students at the Magnet are truly remarkable. I am inspired by the way they used their resources to work through a challenge–faster than even everyone else could process what was going on. I knew the students were on lockdown; my professional training in behavioral disorders provided me comfort knowing that everyone else was safe. That was until my child called home. For the first time in her life she was speechless, muted by her own confusion. The drive to get to her was the longest one in my life. The next few days, however, the students rallied will a frenzy of text’s, and other social networking posts that was unparallel to anything I had ever seen in which they organized their own series of school-wide support system. In the days and weeks that have followed, I have been supporting her the best ways I know how–but at the same time have been awestruck how she has worked through it all. More important, I have been inspired by the way the student body has dealt with such a horrific tragedy.

  3. Mel Konner says:

    Dear Clare,

    Thank you for writing. I was reminded of the same “it gets better” campaign. If you haven’t seen the video of the Fort Worth city councilman’s speech, don’t miss it:

    In my next posting I’ve tried to say a little about how teenagers at risk for suicide may be different from adults on the same brink. I wouldn’t be surprised if energy is in some sense a part of it—this may explain why all anti-depressants carry a risk of suicide, especially when they first start to work. The depressed person finally has a little energy, but has not yet learned to use it to become less depressed, only to take the worst possible action. I think the situation with teenagers is more complicated; hormonal surges of puberty occur earlier than ever, while the inhibitory competence of the frontal lobes is years away from maturity. It’s the energy, but it’s also the despairing impulse, and the inability to hold it back long enough to let it pass.

    Whatever the explanation, we can be glad that the suicide rate for teens is still substantially lower than the average over all ages. Let’s hope we can make it lower.

    Be well,


  4. Mel Konner says:

    Dear Dr. Manning,

    I am sure you realize how much it means to me that someone as close to these events as you are sees them in a way not so different from how I saw them from a distance. Your description of your daughter’s and her schoolmates’ resilience moistened my eyes. It matches my own impression of the wave of love and mutual support that swept through their young community. Despite the fact that I tend to believe in and expect more resilience than many psychologists do, I was still surprised enough by their exceptional response to want to write about it. Aaron’s dreadful suffering is worth telling about of course, but there is so much suffering in this world, and what made me want to write about it was the way your daughter and her friends and their community lived through it and, it seems to me, came out better and stronger on the other side. Thank you for taking the time to write to me about it as well.


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