It’s a dank Sunday afternoon in January, and I’m standing on the Ravenswood Metra platform with a dozen other people waiting for the northbound 4:48 train. An announcement comes across the speakers overhead and says the next train will arrive in seven minutes, which means it will be three minutes late. I zip my jacket against the chill and hitch my bag a little higher on my back. I hope the papers I stuffed inside aren’t getting wrinkled, but I won’t know until I grade them on the train.
I look down the tracks toward the city and see a man in black pants and a black coat at the far end of the platform about four hundred feet away. He’s standing on the yellow caution strip at the edge of the platform where the train pulls in. The moment I see him, he jumps onto the tracks.
I’m hoping it’s some kid goofing around, but then I think about the suicide-by-train headlines that sometimes pop up in Chicago newspapers. I tell a man in a blue jacket standing next to me what I saw. He looks in the direction I’m pointing. A woman talking on her phone nearby also takes notice.
I take a few steps toward the far end of the platform and yell for the man in black to get off the tracks. He raises his head in our direction. He stops, and then hoists himself out of the track bed and walks to the stairs at the end of the platform. I stop, not sure if he took the stairs down to street level or is standing in the stairwell.
I turn to the woman on her phone and tell her to call the police. She looks at me, and I’m not sure she understands why I want her to do that. She says she doesn’t see him down there anymore. She asks if she should I still call. I tell her yes and start walking toward the stairwell.
My mind is functioning in diametric contradiction to itself. In one regard, my vision narrows to the stairwell; I’m acting in the moment and am focused on helping the man. This isn’t some heroic snap into rescue mode, but rather my teacher training kicking in. My actions feel normal. Protect others first is an instinct that develops quickly in the classroom and hallways, and in fact is a matter of legislation in the event of fights, bullying, and self-harming behaviors.
In another regard, I am thinking about what else could be happening besides a possible suicide attempt—this is a city in which guns are practically a currency. The thought of why am I doing this? flashes in my mind, and by the time I am halfway to the stairwell, I’m searching for angles of approach that will make it more difficult for the man to do something if he has a weapon.
I’m a few yards away from the stairwell before I see the man leaning against a rail on the far edge of the platform. He’s young and wiry, probably in his early twenties. A set of headphones spans ear-to-ear across the top of his head, directly through his curly brown hair. He has stuffed his hands in his coat pockets.
I ask him if he’s okay.
He doesn’t respond. He knows I’m talking to him, but is trying not to look at me. It’s the same act some of my students affect when they get caught misbehaving.
I ask again if he’s okay and if he needs help.
I tell him nobody wants to see him hurt.
Still no response.
The man in the blue jacket has made his way down the platform and is next to me. His voice is forceful when he asks the kid why he was on the tracks.
The kid looks at me, then the man in the blue jacket, but still doesn’t say anything. He has sunk into his coat and appears scared, though stoned, embarrassed, or mental all come to mind.
The man in the blue jacket again asks him why he was on the tracks. Still no response. He says look at me. Hey. Look at me. Why were you on the tracks?
He realizes the kid isn’t going to respond, and finally tells him not to pull that bullshit.
I look down the tracks and see the train coming in. The headlight on the locomotive cuts through the mist, and a blast from its horn pierces the air. I wait with the man in the blue jacket as the train arrives. It feels like we have an unspoken agreement that we’ll stop the kid if he tries to do anything.
The train doesn’t stop until it’s down where I was standing in the first place. The situation seems to be paused, at least temporarily. The kid is either going to get on the train or leave the platform; either way, he is likely to be in custody some time soon.
I turn and run for the train, annoyed that I might miss it and have to wait two hours for the next one all because I got involved in the situation. I’m halfway to the rearmost door when I hear a swishing sound over my left shoulder. The kid is running behind me. I hope his only intention is to board the train, which he does in the rear car.
I follow the man in the blue jacket to the second car from the back. We board. He sits down right away, but I keep walking until I’m standing next to a conductor at the front of the car. I tell him what happened, describe the kid, and tell him he is in the rear car.
I look around and feel everybody’s eyes on me. I have taken the panic that fell upon those of us on the platform and brought it to dozens of passengers who also weren’t expecting this to happen on a typical train ride home. I probably look crazy to them. I’m heaving with breath, my hands are shaking, and I’m stumbling over my words.
The conductor asks if the kid is acting crazy.
I don’t know what the kid would have to do beyond jumping on the tracks to qualify as acting crazy. I tell the conductor I don’t know, but if he’s a danger to himself, he could be a danger to others.
Why am I having to say all this? Isn’t there a procedure in place for these types of situations?
The conductor says alright and moves toward the front of the train.
Why is he moving in the opposite direction of the problem?
The train stops at Rogers Park a few minutes later. I expect a longer stop so they can get the kid off the train and summon the police, but the train pulls out only a minute later. It’s useless to look out the window to see who has gotten off—the green tint on the glass is too dark to see much of anything, and the sun has almost set.
Once we are underway again, the conductor passes through the car with another conductor. They stop and ask me for the kid’s description. They walk to the rear car, but a few minutes later only one returns and walks back through the car I’m sitting in.
We hit the regular stops on the north line, none of which lasts any longer than it takes for people to get on and off. I start grading papers, but my hands are still shaking a little bit and my mind keeps looping back to the Ravenswood platform. Whether or not I’m correct, I can’t escape the thought that the kid was planning to kill himself. But I’m not sure what, if anything, the conductors did about him.
I surrender grading and stare vaguely out the window. My mind throws itself in reverse, and within seconds I am crashing headlong into the names and faces of the dozens of students I’ve had who admitted suicidal thoughts or attempted to kill themselves. Mental health issues on the whole feel as ubiquitous in my school as standardized test scores, especially amongst our many poverty-stricken students, so suicidal ideations are not uncommon.
If any of my students are or have been suicidal, I only find out weeks after they have been inexplicably absent and the threat is no longer imminent. I strive to be as dispassionate as possible about helping them rejoin the classroom and recover their grades. I don’t talk to them about the situation, nor do they usually bring it up, and they move on with their lives as best they can. The circumstances have never been more than hard facts to me, and the instinct to compartmentalize them developed quickly when I was a young teacher so I wouldn’t take my work home with me.
After two decades, that instinct has become as strong as my initial response to the kid on the platform, but it feels just now like I’ve mostly been pulling the plug on situations with my students for my own benefit and wonder how well I’ve actually been serving them if my response is to subvert my commitment to them.
But I did what I was supposed to do at Ravenswood. I was humane and helpful in a city where people kill and die at escalating rates almost yearly; still, it feels like my efforts amounted to very little for that kid, wherever he ended up. Is that the same result my students feel in the wake of my unattached approach to their issues?
Did I do enough? What more could I have done? Even outside of the context of what happened at Ravenswood, those are questions that perpetually echo through a teacher’s mind. They are questions that I have come to ignore or suppress so I can focus on teaching without being inundated by the problems of others, but that I now realize I should be listening to on a more consistent basis. What has been lost in the time since I’ve made this unattached approach my default setting?
I step off the train in Waukegan, back into the chilly air and mist thick enough to feel on my hands and face. As I walk to my car, I try to stop thinking about what happened at Ravenswood and think instead about grading papers, or tomorrow’s lesson plans, or almost anything else, but I can’t. I want to slam the brakes on my mind to keep it from careening recklessly into the past or spinning uselessly in the present. I want to close the door on this compartment that I never asked to have opened; I want to pull the plug, but I can’t.
Once I’m at my car, the train chugs past me into the night and the fog that has rolled off Lake Michigan. It’s red brake lights blink through the haze far on down the line, cautioning in hindsight anyone who watches it speed past.
Author’s Note: I was contacted the morning of October 29th, 2018 by several people, each asking if I had heard from or knew the whereabouts of my long-time friend Joel. He had been missing for almost 24 hours. The next five days were filled with angst and uncertainty about where he was and how he was. You go through your daily routines as best you can in a situation like that and try not to think about how powerless you are to do anything about it. You hope it will all be a big misunderstanding. You hope your friend will call or text, or you’ll find him at your door when you come home from work. The sixth day brought an end to all the uncertainty and desperate hoping: They’d found Joel’s body. He had taken his own life. By phenomenal coincidence, I’d been revisiting this piece the days before and throughout that terrible week. I was working diligently to recast it from a previous version numerous publications had rejected. Something had sparked in my mind while teaching my Creative Writing students a few weeks prior, and I became almost desperate to bring greater depth and honesty to my writing. To make it count for something more. I had no idea when I re-approached the piece that I would be visited again by an act of suicide, or that it would strike so close to my heart again. Joel left a hole in the lives of the people whom he choose to populate his existence, and set each of us out on a journey to understand his choices. I hope we all find the meanings we need to find, and that our journeys will be no longer than necessary. It’s a tough journey, like walking through an impenetrable fog. But light can and does break through. Let it, and reach for it when it does.
is dedicated to the memory of
Joel David Hutson (1978-2018)
Jeff Burd is a graduate of the Northwestern University writing program. His publications include The Baseball Research Journal, Imitation Fruit, BULL: Men’s Fiction, KYSO: Flash, Mount Hope, Soliloquies Anthology, Third Wednesday, and Dislocate. He was judged a winner of the First Memorial George Dila Flash Fiction Contest, and his nonfiction writing A Familiar Problem, a Familiar Face was recognized by Mensa as Best Unpublished Novel. Mr. Burd lives in Gurnee, IL, were he spends his time exercising, reading, writing, working in the kitchen, cheering for the Chicago Cubs, and watching Tottenham Hotspur. He works as a Reading Specialist at Zion-Benton Township High School in Zion, IL.