How to close a club no one wants to join

Linz, Germany (Photo by Bill Pike)

Today in Virginia, a family is attending a funeral for a loved one. These heartbroken people now belong to the “quiet club.”

The “quiet club” is reserved for families whose loved one died by suicide. Understandably, that quietness is also about the struggle of publicly acknowledging this unexpected and tragic loss.

During that funeral, another person in Virginia is struggling with life. Sadly, unless there is a miraculous intervention, the demon of darkness will record another suicide.

Our family knows the “quiet club.” My wife’s oldest sister died by suicide. This blindsiding tragedy crushed her parents. She left behind a stunned husband and two sons.

Some say suicide is a selfish act. I disagree. Suicide is blindness. An incomprehensible darkness consumes a person. In that darkness, light and hope are absent.

Additionally, I sense people who die from suicide have developed the capacity to mask their internal challenges. Their daily living and employment routines appear normal, but they aren’t.

There is no immunity from suicide.

When I worked in public schools, I remember a family losing their mother, grandparents losing a grandson, and a school losing a secretary. Those are unbearable losses for families. Parents, siblings, spouses, friends try to understand how they failed a loved one. A hovering guilt wrestles in their hearts and souls.

Comprehending all of this isn’t easy. But, I believe these losses are pushing us to recognize an important reality: we can no longer delay becoming better at understanding the causes that lead to dying by suicide.

The need to understand this loss of life can be found in numerous health reports. In 2020, the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention cites the following statistics from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention:

Suicide was the twelfth leading cause of death

45,979 Americans died from suicide
An estimated 1.2 million Americans attempted suicide

On average there are 130 suicides per day

More recently, in September 2022, the National Vital Statistics System reports the provisional number of suicides in 2021 was 47,646. That is 4% higher than 2020.

No matter where we look in Virginia and America, we have human infrastructure challenges.

We are exceptionally skilled in blasting rockets into outer space, designing driverless vehicles, constructing skyscrapers with every amenity, paying unimaginable salaries to athletes, and yet, we can’t commit to solving our urgent needs in mental health.

In our divided political climate, I wonder, should municipal bond referendums be redesigned to address not only our physical infrastructure needs, but our human infrastructure needs too?

Clearly, neither can be neglected. But, aren’t those infrastructures really linked to each other? Don’t physical infrastructure improvements depend upon employees who are mentally healthy for work?
So how do we move forward?

Perhaps, a good starting point is understanding that suicide is preventable.

Understanding how to prevent suicide depends upon our capacity to listen and learn.
We have lots of data about suicide, but do we know the stories in that data?

Gently, we need to learn the stories from the families who have lost a loved one. What can we learn from their experiences?

More probing must be conducted with individuals who considered suicide. What caused the change not to follow through?

Finally, we can’t ignore our mental health practitioners. Their experiences in the trenches are essential to understanding — what works, what doesn’t work, and what they require to help everyone in need.

Suicide is a crisis.

The “quiet club” is growing.

Today or tomorrow, in whispered words, we will learn about families in our communities who have experienced this tragic and unexpected loss.

Sometimes, those whispered words are countered with a public announcement. On Nov. 3, university leaders at North Carolina State University canceled classes for a “wellness day” as the school lost three students who died by suicide.

Ray Davies is a prolific songwriter. He helped form the British band, The Kinks.

In the song, “Days” he writes: “Thank you for the days, those endless days, those sacred days you gave me. I’m thinking of the days, I won’t forget a single day, believe me.”

Mr. Davies’ heartfelt words might resonate with “quiet club” members.

But, I also know the families who lost loved ones to death by suicide would do anything they could to reclaim those days.

We need to close the “quiet club.”

Closing the “quiet club” requires you, me, we, us not to be quiet about suicide.

We must urgently advocate to be a light for every person lost in the darkness of life.

Pike is retired educator who currently works as the Director of Operations at Trinity United Methodist Church in Henrico County.

Author’s note: Friends, this op-ed piece was published in the December 28, 2022 edition of the Roanoke Times. Thanks to Editor, Mike Allen, for running the piece. If my words resonate with you, I’d simply ask that you share the piece with family, neighbors, co-workers, and friends. Be safe, thanks, Bill Pike

Day Five: Vienna, forget the coffee

Gray skies and raindrops greeted our shore excursion into Vienna, Austria. The good news— the rain wasn’t coming down in buckets, and the temperature was tolerable.

True to form, our tour guides took control on the ride into the city pointing out landmarks, and prepping us for our walking tour.

My first impression about Vienna is its size. Sources indicate a population close to two million people. Some round that out to 2.9 million in the metropolitan area.

But despite its size, Vienna has all the visual nuggets and history an old North Carolina raised boy could appreciate.

Our first landmark was the Hofburg Palace. The building’s construction started in the 13th century with multiple additions and renovations along the way. Today, the building is the residence and office for the President of Austria.

One section of the Hofburg Palace (photo by Bill Pike)

The exterior architecture is impressive. But, what caught my eye was a domed ceiling in one of the archways.

Domed ceiling in archway at the Hofburg Palace
(Photo by Bill Pike)

Later we returned to the Hofburg to the Imperial Treasury to view the crowned jewels. I can only begin to imagine the craftsmanship and the tedious work that went into these creations.

Our guide directed us to St. Stephen’s Cathedral with a word of caution—pickpockets. So before entering the packed church, we all completed a quick assessment of our essential valuables.

The towers of the cathedral have long been a cherished part of the Vienna skyline, and yes, it is ancient—1137 was its groundbreaking. And with lots of old things, there has been lots of wear and tear over the centuries, but even if you aren’t a big fan of church buildings, you must take a gander at the interior.

Interior St. Stephen’s Cathedral
(Photo by Bill Pike)

From the cathedral we walked back into the Stephansplatz square intent on finding one of the many highly recommended coffee cafes that the Viking staff and tour guides had suggested. We found a couple of them, but they were packed and the lines were long.

So, we walked back into the square and found a place who had covered seating outside its entrance.

Now, I’m not a coffee aficionado. When I was a kid, I’d fix a cup of coffee, and add what seemed like a pint of whole milk and at least a pound of sugar, and it tasted pretty good. The aroma of coffee is very tempting, but I’m still a coffee abstainer.

But, at this cafe, my wife and I found something better—Italian hot chocolate with fresh cream. I would go back to Vienna for another slurp of this divine creation. Add to it a perfect piece of apple strudel, and I would die a happy man.

Cardiologist delight (Photo by Betsy Pike)

After that nourishment, we did some more exploring, and then we had a meeting of the minds, and we each went in separate directions.

Our daughter, Elizabeth, in college had taken multiple classes in art history, and she wanted to visit the Belvedere. This is where an artist she admires, Gustav Klimt, has his most famous work, The Kiss, on display.

Luckily, Elizabeth had good navigational skills, and we made the long walk to the Belvedere. As you might have guessed, the Belvedere is no dumpy place. In fact, it is a palace, the Upper and the Lower along with the Orangery and the Palace Stables.

Belvedere (Photo Bill Pike)

Lots and lots of people were at the Belvedere, but it was worth the long walk. The grounds are immense, the buildings, and the art showcased are as Gomer would say, “a sight to behold.”

Interior ceiling in the Belvedere (Photo by Bill Pike)

From the Belvedere, we walked back toward the center of Vienna, and at some point our feet and legs told us to find a taxi ride back to the ship. Luckily, our driver was a native of Vienna, and knew exactly where to take us.

Once back at the ship, I decided to take a short walk along the banks of the Danube. Both sides of the river had nice wide paved paths. I had thought about bringing my running gear, but reasoned that I didn’t have room in my suitcase.

From the ship, I walked up to the next bridge that crossed the river. Along the way, I saw a few swans along the edge of the bank. Fall was changing the color of tree leaves, and a few people were out for a stroll.

Back at the ship, our evening schedule was different. We had our port talk about the plans for Sunday, but there were two excursions taking place tonight: a Mozart and Strauss concert and a Heurigen event. A heurigen takes place at a tavern that showcases wines of Austria. Here the focus is on sampling new wines of the local winemakers.

From our family group of eight, four were going to the concert, and four of us were opting for the normal dinner on the ship. To accommodate these excursions, guests were asked to eat in shifts. Those going on the excursions ate dinner earlier with a 6 p.m. start. Our time for dinner was 7:30.

Since we were traveling with family, we ate all of our meals with family.

But this evening, that template would change.

My wife, our daughter, and my wife’s brother found a table. The four of us sat down, and we had a couple of extra seats.

As we and other guests were getting settled in, a couple walked by our table. In passing, I heard the woman say to herself, I can’t believe there isn’t another table for two set up. She seemed frustrated, and as the couple turned to pass our table again, I stood up, and gently asked if they would like to join our table.

I have no idea what nudged me out of my comfort zone, but the couple graciously accepted the invitation to join us.

Over dinner, we learned about Nikki and John, and they learned about us. Humor cushioned the initial awkward jitters, stories were shared, and for the remainder of the trip we always checked in with each other.

There was an extra bonus as a late night snack on this evening. The chef had prepared a Goulash Soup. Since my biological clock was out of sync, I managed to stay awake for a sample, and I’m glad I did. The soup had a deep paprika color, and its rich broth with bits of beef and potato was yummy.

One thing that has been tucked in the back of mind with this trip has been World War II. In Stephen Ambrose’s book, The Wild Blue, the author wrote about bombing missions that were flown by Army Air Corp pilots and their crews in B-24 bombers.

Vienna because of its refineries and marshaling yards was often a target. Before taking off, crews received very detailed briefings about the weather conditions, the specific target, and what to expect from enemy resistance. For Vienna, the pilots and their navigators were told “to stay well away from St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Opera House, the palace, and other historic buildings, and schools.” (Page 229, Ambrose Blue Yonder)

I can only imagine the tension, pressure, and fear the crews on those B-24 bombers felt during those missions. And, I have no comprehension what the tension, pressure, and fear felt like to a citizen in Vienna on the ground with bombs falling out of the sky.

Scars from a war are never erased.

But, I’m thankful that evil was confronted, and that Vienna endured.

Holiday needs hopeful, open, trusting heart

John Hughes was a gifted filmmaker.

I enjoy his holiday movie, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

The humor makes me laugh. But, the script pushes me to think.

Hughes creates an interesting clash between two travelers. This is a struggle against the odds and each other to get home to their families.

Moments of tension between the travelers is revealing.

Tension has a way of doing this to us.

I think Christmas in its on unique way creates a type of tension.

For Christmas that tension is wrapped in the trappings of the pursuit of perfection and the hope of surviving the madness it creates.

Right now, I’m uncertain that even Christmas can quell the tension in America.

We are divided, fractured like a battered road surface on a cold winter morning.

Deep inside the fissures of our souls that tension is entrenched.

Somehow, someway, we must realize the taut toxicity of this tension isn’t good for us.

In Planes,Trains, and Automobiles, one of the travelers has a quiet moment of self-talk. He considers his multiple imperfections and asks himself—“When am I ever going to wake up?”

I wonder the same about America—when are we ever going to wake up?

Perhaps, the potential to wake up is in our hearts.

Even in the Christmas story, I sense tension was present in the hearts of Mary and Joseph. Despite this strain, their hearts found the way to trust.

Presently, our tension is grounded in lots of things, but mistrust is a key contributor.

Our hearts are long overdue to open up to each other.

Failure to reconstruct our hearts to trust will cause them to snap.

We can’t let that happen.

No, this Christmas we need to give each other a gracious gift—a hopeful, open, trusting heart.

Author’s note: This letter to the editor appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 18, 2020. Photo obtained legally.

We need a deeper dive

In August, the Virginia Department of Education released the annual compiling of our students’ Standards of Learning test scores and, more recently, the scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests came out nationally. Such events are always met with headlines and comments from appointed and elected officials, and this year was certainly no exception.

Coming on the heels of a global pandemic, it came as no surprise that student performance was down when compared to pre-COVID results, even after herculean efforts from school systems and educators to maintain learning by switching from in-person classes to virtual instruction. Unfortunately, the family and technology infrastructure needed to make online learning successful was not always in place. As a result, I believe it will take students, their families, and teachers years to recover from this significant disruption.

Reacting to the SOL scores, Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, noted that while we were fighting achievement gaps before COVID, we are now even further from closing them. Why are we always trying to recover ground related to achievement gaps in Virginia?

Virginia’s students began taking SOL tests in 1998. What have we learned from 24 years of testing data? Are we any better equipped to understand students, their families, our communities, schools, and teachers now than we were then?

I believe test score data is very incomplete and can be misleading. For example, in single-parent homes during the pandemic, does the data capture the impact felt when older siblings miss multiple middle and high school classes to care for younger siblings?

Does the data uncover the effect disruptive students have on their own learning, and the learning of classmates?

Does the data reveal the consequences of prolonged achievement gaps?

Are these gaps grounded in our inability to solve malignant challenges related to family, poverty, mental health, housing, safety, and equity?

Does the data capture the morale of teachers who attempt, every day, to deliver high-quality instruction in increasingly challenging environments?

If we hope to recover instructional ground and close achievement gaps, we must commit to the hard work of answering those questions, and more. And it will be hard work, much more difficult than merely collecting test scores and then making public statement about them. Continuing to place blame for unsatisfactory SOL test results on the shoulders of teachers and school system leaders is misguided.

Maybe a week shadowing a teacher in a challenging school could change the minds (and comments) of some of our elected and appointed officials.

Since some of us are quick to blame disappointing SOL scores on teachers, I wonder if Governor Glenn Youngkin’s “tip line” saw an uptick in calls when the SOL and NAEP test scores were released. Additionally, I wonder if that “tip line” contributed to the current teacher shortage school systems face?

Truthfully, school systems have always scrambled to fill teaching positions before each new school year begins. In 1975, I began my teaching career as a last-minute hire and, as an administrator, I was later on the other side of making those hires. We have witnessed many changes since then. Often in immeasurable ways, students are affected by disruptive changes in their families and communities. Despite these changes, teachers are continually asked to be “first responders” to our societal challenges, while still delivering excellent instruction.

If we truly want to both improve standardized test scores and close achievement gaps, we need to move beyond predictable political finger-pointing. With urgency, we must commit to a deeper dive into the troublesome data, because troublesome numbers are not just statistics—they represent struggling students. Struggling students who desperately need our help. For too long, we’ve overlooked the multiple needs of many of them. We can’t afford to do so any longer.

Understanding how the academic potential of these students is affected by family, poverty, mental health, housing, safety, and equity factors is pivotal. And while it will be complicated and involve more effort, if we fail to make this discovery for every struggling student, then we will neither see improvement in SOL scores, nor will we close gaps in achievement.

For too long, we have failed to adequately address how these vicious generational patterns impact our classrooms. The unsteady family, the single parent working three jobs, the fragile, volatile student who urgently needs mental health services, the family who is crammed into a hotel room or living out of a car, the unsafe neighborhood, and the widening division of equity all reside within the walls of a school building.

Those unwavering human infrastructure challenges impact every person who is employed in a school, and embedded in that impact is morale. It is quite possible that morale is at the heart of every teacher resignation and every personnel opening a school system is advertising to fill. The tension of this human trauma makes me wonder if our vision for educating the children in our communities is outdated and no longer adequate.

Maybe this quote from Margot Lee Shetterly, author of Hidden Figures, says it best: “You don’t get the good without the bad, but you really do have to see it all in order to make progress.”

In Virginia, if we are going to make progress with test scores and achievement gaps, we must work together “to see it all” for every student.

Author’s note: This story appeared in the December 2022 edition of the Virginia Journal of Education. Thanks to editor, Tom Allen, for improving the piece and for allowing me to expand it.

Not A Christmas Song

Matthew Chapter 2, verses 9-10: “and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him.”

Sometimes in the days prior to the official start of winter, cold, crisp air will settle into central Virginia. I’m an early riser and a runner, and often I start my runs just before the sun starts to creep over the horizon.

On those chilly mornings, the stars seem brighter and clearer against the deep darkness of the sky. I wonder what the wise men sensed and felt as they followed that bright star to where Mary was holding her newborn son?

Even though, it isn’t a Christmas song, I like the lyrics from a Gillian Welch song entitled “Dear Someone”. The words in the second verse remind me of Christmas, “One little star, smiling tonight, knows where you are. Stay, little star, steady and bright to guide me afar.”

I like the image of a star smiling at night, guiding the wise men to their destination, and it was a light that never failed to provide the reassurance they needed.

As I prepare for the arrival of Christ at Christmas, the light of the stars sparkling in the pre-dawn sky reminds me that the birth of Jesus, and the light brought into world by him never ceases to provide me guidance, direction, and hope.

One tiny star(Photo by Bill Pike)

Let us pray: Heavenly father may the sparkling light from the stars always remind us of your son, Jesus, and his birth. Amen

Author’s note: This piece was published on December 10, 2010 in the Society of St. Andrew’s devotional booklet.

Day Four: Bratislava, Slovakia

Departing Budapest at night, we were cruising toward Bratislava, Slovakia. Bratislava is the capital and largest city in Slovakia.

On Friday, October 14, our morning routine had a slower pace to it, as we were not scheduled to dock in Bratislava until 2 p.m.

But, as we approached the city, we were going to be carefully moving through a series of locks all designed to help us navigate the river in an efficient and effective manner.

Our first set of locks on the Danube River (Photo by Bill Pike)

I’m sorry to disappoint you, but my brain doesn’t have the bandwidth to explain how all this works. Somehow the crew, and the operators of the locks, precisely move the ship in a straight-line as the water levels go up and down as needed.

Trust me, this is an impressive engineering fete, and one that we would encounter several more times on the journey. And while I marvel at the construction and the ingenuity to master the river, my interior voice is nagging me: “we can build this, but we continue to be unable to solve basic human needs all over the world, why?”

At 10:30, we had the opportunity to visit the wheelhouse with Captain Stanislav. Again, lots of technology and engineering, and amazingly all this wizardry works— including the ability to raise and lower the wheelhouse based upon the cruising height needed for approaching bridges.

Next, we had the privilege of attending two presentations. The first one was about Mozart and the Viennese coffeehouses. This was followed by a firsthand account of growing up in Eastern Europe including the experiences of our Program Director talking about living under Communist rule.

Back in 1989, Communist rule came to an end in Czechoslovakia, and four years later, 1993, Slovakia became an independent state.

Hearing the accounts of living under Communist rule, made me as an American think— I should never take my independence and freedom for granted.

After lunch, we connected with our tour guides and loaded on to our designated bus.

On the ride to Bratislava Castle, we saw and learned a lot about the city.

The four corners of the castle are perched on a beautiful hill that overlooks the city. From here the views will catch the eyes of all visitors.

From the Castle looking downhill (Photo by Bill Pike)

History is all over the building, its statues, and grounds. A part of the grounds showcases a beautiful garden area.

Garden area on the grounds of the Castle (Photo by Bill Pike)

Throughout our cruise and shore excursions our guides remind us about two constants—the Romans and Napoleon. Yes, a long time ago each had an impact in Slovakia.

As we depart the castle, we are driven into another section of the city—Old Town. We spend the remainder of the afternoon walking and exploring here. Shops, statues, fountains, alleys, and the pleasing aesthetics of the older buildings catch our attention.

Alley space between buildings in Old Town. (Photo by Bill Pike)

And just before we walk back to the ship, we stop for drinks at an outdoor cafe.

That evening before dinner, we received a port talk from the Program Director about what to expect when we arrive in Vienna.

And after dinner, we were treated to an evening of Slovakian and Hungarian melodies. This was a mixture of operetta, folklore, and gypsy music.

The performances and the performers were good, and if a person wanted more musical entertainment, our onboard musician, Blondie, was singing and playing piano in the Lounge.

His stage name, Blondie, didn’t make sense. As Blondie was a big man, and no strands of blonde were upon his head.

Sun setting over the Danube River, Bratislava, Slovakia (Photo by Bill Pike)