“The Secret Life of Bees”: A postscript

[Mr. Ronald Stewart, Headmaster, received the following email message on June 12, 2013, from the parent of a 9th grade York Prep student.]

Dear Mr. Stewart:As you may know, my son just finished his first year at York and will be going into 10th grade in September. He had a great year and really loves the school. He was in Ms. Barrish’s English class this year and was one of the students who did The Secret Life of Bees suicide note assignment. He and I saw the articles in the various media sources today and I wanted to take the time to write.

I believe that this was the best assignment that Ms. Barrish had the class do this year. I read The Secret Life of Bees while my son was reading it and the book focuses a lot on how to live life and how to create support systems around you. If you haven’t read the book, one of the main characters is a sister named May who is struggling emotionally throughout the book after her twin sister commits suicide at a young age. May internalizes everyone else’s pain to the point where she simply cannot function and ultimately takes her own life after one of the other main characters is put in jail without basis and she feels responsible for it.The suicide note written in the book by May was a very simple one that was written to her sisters about how they can now move on with their lives without worrying about her anymore. Ms. Barrish asked the class to write the suicide note that they would write if they were May, explaining to her sisters what drove her to commit suicide and saying goodbye to them.

When my son first discussed the assignment with me, he was very engaged and interested in trying to get into May’s head and write the note from the perspective of someone who experienced what she had experienced. It was a serious and mature assignment that 9th graders at a school like York who are growing up in a metropolitan city should be exposed to. It prompted a very good dialogue between us about the topic of suicide generally, how people cope differently with loss in their lives and about the effect that a decision like May’s could have on a family.My son took this assignment seriously, enjoyed doing the assignment and learned a great deal in the process. I believe that more teachers should come up with creative ways like this to engage their kids to empathize with the characters they are reading about and understand what motivates them so that they can explain it in their own words. It makes for a much better learning experience.

I hope that you have a good summer, and thank you for a great first year at York.

Jodi Kleinick