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Tragic, teachable moment

What will Rigoberto Ruelas' students learn from his suicide?

October 02, 2010|Sandy Banks

Maybe it seems pointless to say now what a dedicated teacher Rigoberto Ruelas was.

He tutored his students after class, visited their homes and met their families, steered them away from gangs and toward college. He arrived early for work every morning at Miramonte Elementary, and had near perfect attendance for 14 years, right up until last week, when he disappeared.

Ruelas' body was discovered on Sunday in a ravine beneath a Big Tujunga Canyon bridge. He left no note, but the Los Angeles County coroner has ruled his death a suicide. Family members have said he had been upset over his score in a teacher-rating database our newspaper created and posted online, which ranked him slightly below average.

It's easy to blame The Times for his death, and many have. Ruelas was a passionate teacher, and some say he was wounded by his "less effective" rating.

It's also tempting to conclude, as some have, that a good teacher wouldn't have taken his own life and left his students wrestling with the baggage of his shocking suicide.

But just as good teaching can't be divined solely from a set of test scores, suicide can't be understood as a single act.

We can't know what was on Ruelas' mind when he ordered a substitute for his fifth-grade class and headed into the Angeles National Forest.

We can turn his death into a teachable moment.

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Psychologist Kita Curry understands the public speculation over Ruelas' death, the need to "explain it, to blame something, so it's less frightening." But suicide among adults, she said, is rarely the result of a single issue.

Curry heads Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services in Los Angeles. Its suicide prevention program has been around for more than 50 years, with a 24-hour crisis hotline that is one of the nation's busiest.

"There's almost always an underlying illness associated with suicide," Curry said. "Depression, anxiety, substance abuse … issues we don't like to talk about.

"People are uncomfortable getting help. Their suffering increases, they feel hopeless, they have trouble coping with life's stresses .… They reach a point where they're not thinking clearly, and they don't see any other way out," she said.

Sometimes there is a tipping point. "People take their lives because suddenly they're going to lose their house or they've been arrested or their wife has left them," Curry said. "But if not for that, it would have been something else. Because the real problem is that they don't have the emotional resources to deal with it. There are others dealing with those same problems and they don't take their lives."

There are special issues to consider when a teacher takes his life, Curry said. Years down the road, his students may wonder how they can make it through life's dark moments, if someone they admired so much couldn't cope.

"They need to be told 'This person was in terrible pain,' just as if he was in pain from cancer or some other illness. And that we can get through really hard times, whether it's losing someone we love or losing face in public, if we reach out for help when we're having problems."

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At Ruelas' memorial service on Wednesday, there was a sense of disbelief among the grim-faced teachers exchanging hugs, the families gathered on the church plaza and the students lined up in the sanctuary to share their memories at the microphone.

They struggled through sobs to say goodbye, recounting a teacher who was like a father. "He made me think about college," one young girl said, her voice shifting from grief to anger. "He was a cool teacher and I don't know why the L.A. Times had to write that. They should have met him first."

I learned something myself in that moment. The Times' database was just that, a collection of scores, ratings used in service of a worthy goal: making the LAUSD accountable. But to his community, Ruelas was muy estimado, a well-respected teacher.

On my drive to work that morning, I listened to callers on KPCC's AirTalk, many of them parents like David, who applauded The Times for naming names, raising a ruckus, sparking a national debate that might hurry the pace of local reform.

"We need that .… Teachers can't hide," David said, his voice breaking as he talked about moving his daughter from school to school in Los Angeles. "She lost two years," he said, because she got stuck with teachers who were inadequate.

But I got a different message in the church that night, from the burly man who broke down at the mike and the mothers wearing sunglasses to hide their swollen eyes. They told stories in Spanish that I didn't quite understand, about bicycles and shared sandwiches and music lessons, but there was no mistaking the love in the air.

To them, some things might matter more than a 10-point jump on a math exam. Ruelas earned their gratitude and their confidence; he reminded them of all their children could accomplish.

But the danger now is that his example could carry another message.

"When the person who dies is made into a hero," Curry warned, "for other people who are vulnerable and don't have good coping skills, [suicide] becomes an option that seems logical. At the same time we mourn this teacher, we have to think about teaching kids that there are alternatives."

What happens when that fifth-grader crying at the microphone hits 14 and her boyfriend dumps her, her algebra teacher fails her, her friends turn catty on their Facebook pages. What will she remember of Mr. Ruelas then?

That depends not so much on why her teacher killed himself, but on what the survivors make of his life and legacy.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

The Los Angeles Suicide Prevention crisis hotline can be reached 24 hours a day at (800) 273-TALK (8255).

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