The parents of teenagers at York Prep High School on New York City's Upper West side are spazzing because of a creative writing assignment given to their kids. Namely, writing a first-person letter from the perspective of someone planning on committing suicide. Trying to teach kids is hard.
Based upon the book The Secret Life of Bees – which I have seen in every airport I've ever been to in the past few years and still not read – the teacher asked the students to pretend they had died as one of the main characters, May Boatwright, had (in the book, Boatwright apparently drowns herself). According to the New York Post, the project required the students to:
"...channel fictitious character May Boatwright by writing in first person — as if they were her — about her legacy and how they wanted to be remembered by her sisters.
'How would you justify ending your life? What reasons would you give?' the project asked."
It sounds like some of the nuance of the assignment might have been lost here. The students were being asked to get inside the head of a character, not write about why they themselves would want to die. It's the kind of assignment that's both something teachers do to get their kids engaged with the work, and something that parents freak out about when they hear. But what exactly is so upsetting about this assignment? The "macabre" nature of it? Would having high school students imagine what another type of death be less weird? Would murder or disease be better? Or is considering the purposefulness of suicide the issue at hand? (It's important to note that the goal of the assignment was probably also about getting students to understand the ramifications of Civil Rights Era tensions. From my limited knowledge of The Secret Life of Bees, this seems relevant.)
It's hard to not feel that the real reason this is upsetting to parents (and that the Post wrote about it) is because of the taboo around suicide and the age of the students, not to mention the control parents like to wield over classrooms. We have a fanciful notion that children should be kept away from the saddest parts of our society, but for many students, it's during their teens that the reality that terrible things happen in the world comes to light and that they try to figure out what this means.
York's principal did note that no parents complained about the homework assignment to the school (just to the newspaper then?). And in another twist, the Post points out that this same teacher was the one who filed a $2 million lawsuit against a friend who both ruined her apartment and killed her cat. Life has certainly been difficult for her lately.