Out of Darkness

“I was thinking, What if the world was like that? What if we only saw one surface of it, the outside, but there was all kinds of other stuff going on, too? All the time. Underneath. But we just don’t see it, even if we’re part of it? Even if we’re in it? And what if you had a chance to see a different layer, like flipping a channel or something? Would you want to look? Even if what you saw looked like hell? Or worse?”

-Andrew Smith, The Marbury Lens (Ch. 28)

Suicide. Linkin Park frontman, Chester Bennington, is dead.

This was the news that social media bombarded me with two days ago. As the details came out, the story became all too familiar. This was, yet again, the case of the immensely talented musician whose work had the power to seemingly help and heal everyone but himself. We’ve lost numerous gifted artists over the past few years, but this one hit me especially hard. For years, the music of Linkin Park has helped me crawl through tough times and climb out of dark places.

I had the typical angsty teen worries that most all of us endure throughout the high school years, but there were also other concerns buried deeper in my psyche. As I went through my adolescent years trying to come to terms with my own uncle’s suicide when I was an eighth grader (as well as that of my high school choir teacher when I was a sophomore in college), Linkin Park’s visceral lyrics and the throaty tone of Chester Bennington allowed me to begin processing my own shadows of the day.

Much of the band’s music library is dark, and with today’s after-the-fact perspective, many songs offer up a downright haunting listening experience.

Dark as they may be, there’s also an honest vulnerability present in the music. A raw voice–literally and figuratively–that acknowledges the hidden underbelly of thoughts, doubts, anxieties, and fears from which no one is ever completely immune. There’s something incredibly powerful and liberating in realizing that you are not alone, that other people have stood where you now stand and the monster that lies before you is not as big nor as bad as it seems in the moment.

Listening to Linkin Park has always provided me with this catharsis. It’s messy, it’s tough, and there’s also that shadow of darkness. And now two days removed from the devastatingly tragic news, I find myself asking questions about Bennington that I earlier asked about Uncle Morey and Mr. Goldenstein. Why now? Why like this? WHY? I’ll likely never know the answers, and yet grappling with these questions and the emotions they evoke in me is human nature. Now, as then, I believe I’m very lucky to have found this form of artful expression, this outlet in the form of Linkin Park. It has extracted my innermost thoughts and feelings and stood beside me as I faced them head on, rather than leave me alone to be consumed by them.

As the calendar creeps closer toward August and the beginning of the school year, I find myself thinking more and more about my students and the exciting work that we’ll do together starting in just a few short weeks. As I anticipate this reading, writing, talking, listening, and learning that we’ll do together, I keep coming back to a few quotes that made their way to my Twitter feed recently.

dav pilkey quote

As a high school teacher, my classroom library is populated with books from all genres, formats, types, and points of view. In fact, after reorganizing the different sections of my library last summer, I think I have upwards of 35 different categories of books. Our classes are comprised of students with a variety of backgrounds and personal histories, and it is imperative that the selection of books that line our walls reflect these differences.

Our students have not lived the same lives we have, so their reading choices will not always match up with those we would make for them. That’s okay. Offering choice means letting go and actually granting students the power of that choice. Even if it seems a bit dark. You provide the access, they’ll provide the history; their lives will help inform their decisions, and they will find what they need. Last year, many of the most widely read sections of my library were ones that explored topics that some might characterize as dark:

  • Drugs/Gangs/Violence
  • Death/Dying/Grieving
  • Mental Illness/Emotional Problems
  • Suicide/Self Harm
  • Body Image
  • Dystopian
  • Horror/Paranormal/Supernatural
dark books

Some of the “dark” books my seniors loved last year.

To some, it might seem risky to provide access to books that delve into these messy and tough and dark topics and themes. And I suppose that’s fair to an extent. There are some books out there that might include triggers for particular students. This is why it’s vital to get to know all our students personally and confer with them regularly about what they’re reading so we can help put the right book in the right hands at the right time. That said, I would argue it is even riskier not to provide access to these books. Our classrooms and the books that reside within them are safe spaces for students to explore and investigate topics and themes that intrigue, unsettle, excite, and scare them. To deny access to these books is to thrust these explorations into places that aren’t nearly so safe.

kate messner

When I was in high school, it would have been game-changing to have books at my disposal that discussed the aftermath of suicide and the grieving process, or featured male characters grappling with their emotions in healthy ways rather than bottling them up in machismo, or otherwise explored the buried questions and doubts that music like that of Linkin Park allowed me to wrestle with. These books are out there now, and we are doing our students a grave disservice if we fail to cast a light on them.

When we honor our students’ reading interests and reading choices, we honor our students’ lives and experiences. We show them they are not alone. When we do that, we make those doubts just a little bit quieter, the pain just a little bit duller, and the world just a little bit brighter.

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