The Cowboy and the Gun

His name has long left me, but I can still see him in my mind’s eye and occasionally wonder what became of him.

He was tall and skinny, a lanky cowboy in an upscale suburban school in the heart of Silicon Valley, California. Dark reddish-brown curly hair, freckles and dressed in a Johnny Cash style of black tee-shirts and jeans, he didn’t interact with the other students, all sophomores, most of whom were very talkative and social.  I suspected he floated on the fringes of high school life.

What I did notice was that he slouched in his desk towards the back of a college prep English class and did minimal, if any, work.  I tried to engage him, I spoke with him after class to see what he needed, what we could do to move the grade out of the D-/F range.  He wasn’t going to move.

Day after day, we engaged in a predictable struggle.  I’d try to draw him out; he’d resist. Occasionally, I’d get a weak smile.  As a novice teacher, I was at a loss as to what more to do.

One day when I had a few minutes, I walked down to the Women’s Dean and asked if she had a moment.

Absolutely.  What do you need?

I described my young man and my concerns regarding his grade and attitude.  She shrugged. She had been an English teacher for many years, so this was not completely out of her realm.  There were no words of wisdom other than to continue doing what I had been doing. 

It was the Keep Hitting Your Head Against the Brick Wall Solution.

A few weeks later, on one of those overcast days, the class was in the midst of a lively discussion about an assigned chapter of a novel, when there was a movement immediately followed by a series of gasps coming from the back of the room.

All eyes were turning towards our cowboy and desks were starting to inch away from him.

He has a gun.

I steadied myself.  Teacher training had not addressed this issue.  There were 35 kids in the class, give or take, and I had two of my own at home.

Probably like a fool, or maybe just like a mother or teacher, I walked back to his desk with measured steps, a composed demeanor  — certainly not disclosing that I was frantically trying to find a possible option, any possible option, filed somewhere in my brain…

Give me the gun. Probably not the best plan, but it was all I had.

I looked at him. He looked at me. Our eyes locked.

I was still holding the open novel in my left hand so I extended my right hand, palm up.

I. Mean. It.   Hand. Me. The. Gun. Now.

I used my best stern I. Have. Had. It. Voice that mothers use when They. Have. Had. It.

He handed me the gun and we all began breathing again.

Let’s go. Let’s get you some help.

The rest of my students sat frozen at their desks, silently staring at their closed books. 

The two of us walked out of the room, my right hand on the cowboy’s arm while the other gingerly held the gun by the handle with my index finger and thumb, barrel down, out in front of me. Any idiot could have grabbed the weapon as we walked across the campus to the Men’s Dean.

I later learned the gun was loaded.  It was then that everything became far too real.

My student was depressed, like an estimated 20% of all students. And, like most teenagers, he didn’t have the life tools to seek help or to even know that he was depressed.  I had spotted the signs, and 30 years too late, knew exactly what they meant.

But even  if I had recognized the signs, services to address these issues were not found, are still not found, at most schools. I know I’m not the only teacher who has faced a loaded gun held by a depressed student.  In a recent national survey, 20% of high school students thought about committing suicide and 8% had attempted to kill themselves.

School guidance counselors are not trained mental health professionals. Counties and agencies funded by public monies typically see only Medi-Cal eligible clients, even though depression and suicide are not limited to those living below the poverty line.

There is still little if any professional help available in schools where kids can be referred or access services on their own. Despite the suicides, despite the school shootings, most schools and counties still can’t figure out how to get minimal professional mental health services to all kids in all public schools.

Instead of saying we can’t, perhaps it is way past time that we start saying we must when it comes to getting kids the mental health help they need.