Dozens, if not hundreds of chairs sat on the student union’s front mall lawn. Not a single person sitting in them, I assumed they’d be for the event we were here for. The chairs stared back as I gazed at them. Couldn’t figure out exactly why no one was sitting in them, however there were a few chairs reserved with pieces of paper taped to the back ends of them.
Clouds hung low with the temperature ominously threatening a storm at any moment, we sat on a bench nearby Coffman Student Union dawning brand new turquoise blue t-shirts reading “I stood for mental health”. Myself and two other students were chosen to perform poetry for Mental Health Awareness Day at the University of Minnesota’s campus outdoors. A dozen student groups have rallied together to make the event possible and put on shindigs all throughout the week.
The two other performers, Nance and Dennis, look reluctant. This isn’t the place to be performing poetry- students whisking by, bikes speeding through the venue to get to class, and a general crowd of folks that don’t know what the f--- the entire setup is about. The event would have to be taken by the throat, performance-wise. Hardly the place or subject matter to be passive about. We’d have to raise our voices, be volatile, interrupt the pattern for a brief 10 minutes in every passerby’s daily agenda.
“So, the best way to figure out who goes first would probably be to go by subject matter- Nance, what’s your poem about?” I ask, to hopefully get some kind of fire lit underneath us. “My poem is just generally about mental health.” Nance softly replied. I could tell her demeanor was misleading in correlation of her performance. She’d most likely step to the mic and Queen Latifah the damn thing into the ground. Nance wasn’t requested to speak for nothing. Her soft tone predicated a talented wordsmith. “Ok” I said. “What about you Dennis?” “Well, my poem is about my recovery”. “Great, you go last” I said. Nance smiled in agreement. Neither of us was talking on our behalf of our own mental health. “Cool, we’re set”.
Nance, Dennis, and I slowly meandered from our bench to the area we’d be performing for the passerby audience. I noticed the mic was turned away from the chairs- wait- what the f---- is going on here? If our backs are turned to the chairs, what are they doing there in the first place. I wasn’t grasping the intent of this affair, and really had no means to, given the subject matter. I’ve made a career of working with children in special education and simply couldn’t disrespect the message. I decided to flag down Mandi, the head chick in charge of the event, she’d be able to fill me in.
Approaching Mandi, several display tables down from me, a young woman held on to a piece of paper she’d written her name on with tape attached. Like dogs sense a seizure, you can pick-up on a preliminary emotional breakdown. Her pale skin went flush, cheeks gone up in slow flames- no convulsing, just a simple submission. The agreement between her and her tears worked its way to public. Something was on that paper causing this woman to cry, and it wasn’t her name.
I looked out to the now hundreds of chairs strewn about the lawn, puzzled. She was heading towards the chairs, but somewhere in the midst of her breakdown several friends caught her and embraced in a group hug before she could reach where she was going. “Jeffrey. We miss you, love you, never forget you” read one of the signs on the chairs near me. This was less a platform to a present audience than it was display for those that’d been lost to mental health related issues. The 1100 chairs packed into the lawn represented the number of college students who commit suicide each year.
No need to fire up for performance, in fact this thing didn't need any of us- the message was already loud & clear. Nance, Dennis, and I were simply the literal in an event paying homage to those that conceived the notion of killing one’s self. On the surface you could take it as us the living amongst those that refused to live on, but in reality it was us the spirited acknowledging those that didn’t have the privilege or circumstance to find peace of mind.
I’ve watched a four-year old draw scissors on a teacher, stand on a table and threaten to cut her if she came any closer. For the next several months the teacher and I would spend our time with this student caring for him and bringing him back to the understanding that nobody was here to hurt or endanger him- that we are here for your livelihood. Regardless of the inequities the child had suffered in his mind or classroom, there is nothing more pure than our convictions to help one another. This is what we were here for amongst 1100 chairs recognizing those that had been lost in the moments of loneliness, sheer angst, pain, the cracks and crevices separating a beating heart from loathing existence.
I grabbed a piece of paper, wrote in big block letters (as best I can, having learned from all my friends that graffiti’d throughout the city) in red marker “MARIA”. Post scripted with a message to her if she were or able to ever read it. She’d been a best friend to my sister for some time, I would run into her every now and then in Minneapolis while she was still in high school, so although our relationship was limited she merited as a good family friend.
I would run into Maria’s sister more often than her. We’d carried a running bet that if Maria were to get married before her, then I owed her five bucks. At the time, Maria had a long-time boyfriend and in the spirit of wishing her well- we bet on it.
Down the road, the wager never kept... and to make a very long story too short- Maria now represents one of those chairs.
The mind is as daunting and foreign to us as it is blessing. Amongst the emotions moving over you like giant waves brilling your skin to goose bumps and butterflies in your stomach, there is a split second you must have recognized there is something larger than life and undoubtedly out of your control here on earth. To grasp that concept might scare you, but for some it might mean the make or break of their mental stability. It's up to us to keep it from breaking.
We performed our poems, taped the names of those we'd lost to chairs, and went about the rest of our day. Maria's been on my mind since.