The October 14 print issue of this newspaper featured the headline, “Transitional apartments offered in Vergennes,” about a shelter that’s helping the homeless to become independent. Directly beneath it was a story about the Charter House Coalition’s Community Supper. The sidebar directed readers to articles about local weddings, and a rubber ducky race fundraiser for Mt. Abraham High School’s fall musical.
At the very bottom of the front page, below the fold, under an enormous photo of a tractor crossing a field amidst glorious fall foliage, was the headline that many of us were really thinking about that week: “Mt. Abe rocked by student suicide.”
My initial reaction was surprise that the news about 16-year-old Olivia Scott’s tragic decision to end her life had made the front page at all. Not that it shouldn’t have been on the front page; as community news, it deserved to be up top in bold. But my husband and I noticed with some amusement, back when we first moved to Addison County, that the more disturbing news – things that didn’t have to do with community services or new businesses or dairy farming – tended to be relegated to the back pages.
A beautiful teenage girl who kills herself, allegedly in response to the severe bullying she suffered at Mt. Abraham High School and on the internet, fits squarely into the category of Things We Don’t Like To Talk About.
We don’t like to talk about these things because they don’t fit with our image of Vermont: a state that markets itself as a bucolic place of ski slopes and rolling fields and dairy farms and white steeples surrounded by autumn leaves. We don’t like to talk about these things because they don’t fit with our image of Addison County: a collection of small towns where everybody knows your name and the newspaper highlights all of the ways in which the community cares for each other. How is it possible that in the midst of such natural beauty, in a community that sets up rubber ducky fundraisers and transitional shelters and ham suppers, a young woman could be in so much pain that she decides it’s better not to be alive?
I’m as guilty as the next person; in over a year of writing this column, I’ve painted a picture of small town Vermont in which the worst thing is the foibles of the weather. I don’t talk about the shabby trailer park down the street, or the fact that a recent survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration ranked Vermont the number one state for illicit drug use. I almost didn’t talk about Olivia Scott, because I’m still relatively new here, and I didn’t know her (although, this being a small community, I know people who knew her). But I decided that failing to mention this news in a column about living in Vermont would be negligent.
Of course, not liking to talk about bullying and teen suicide isn’t really a Vermont problem, or an Addison Independent problem; it’s a human problem. We don’t talk about these things because they don’t fit with our image of who we are as people, and also because we don’t have any real answers for this type of behavior. It taps into our primal fear that maybe things aren’t as fine as we like to think; maybe we’re capable of great cruelty and deep pain, maybe we can’t really help our kids, maybe there are broken things in us that can’t be fixed. Olivia Scott’s death shocked us into remembering that, no matter how beautiful the setting or tight-knit the communities, Vermont is inhabited by human beings.
And humans are problem solvers. So when something like what happened to Olivia Scott shocks us enough that we’re forced to talk about it, we look for the problem. We point to the internet, to the schools. I’ll agree that the internet and schools provide environments where bullying can feel more concentrated and can flourish like mold in a petri dish. But cruelty existed long before organized education, and suicide happened long before social media. Very few of us escaped childhood without experiencing some heavy duty teasing and taunting. Most of us got through it because we had enough other people around us – family, friends, community members – to counterbalance the pain, to assure us it was worth it to stick around.
There’s a saying that I’ve heard a lot since having children: “Once you become a parent, every child is your child.” I’ve found that to be true; whenever tragedy befalls a child these days, it pains me more deeply than before I had children of my own. But I wonder whether that saying is mostly about our self-centeredness. In my own case, it often is; when I hear about unimaginable things happening to children, I imagine those things happening to my own children…and then I’m grateful that they didn’t. And while I truly love being around children who aren’t my own offspring, if I’m honest I often tend to size up other kids in relation to my own: Whoa, she’s writing her name already! Or: Hmm, he’s not as polite as MY children.
But what if, instead of seeing other children with my own child’s face, or using them as developmental measuring sticks, I actually treated them like my own children? What if, when I came into contact with other children in my community, I noticed their strengths and told them how special they were? What if I cheered as loudly for other children at events as I do for my own? What if I were as available to help other children as I am for my own? What if we all were?
Olivia Scott is someone’s child; so are the children who bullied her. And somewhere along the way, they all got the mistaken impression that it’s possible for certain people to not be special, to not matter all that much. But everyone is special; and everyone is fragile, so how we treat others matters very, very much.
I don’t have any real answers to our loss of Olivia Scott. But I suspect that if we’re looking for the problem, we might start by looking at how we treat our children – our own, and those in our community. Are we modeling compassion and kindness? No amount of internet controls or guidance counselors or anti-bullying programs are enough to make a child feel like they matter because they’re deeply loved and unconditionally supported.
Even love and support might not be enough; from what I hear, Olivia Scott was very loved. But there’s another saying I like: “It’s okay to make mistakes, as long as they’re new ones.” What happened to Olivia Scott has gotten our community talking; now, let’s try not to let it happen again.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone puppy — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.