Joe and McKenzie – A Story of Near Suicide and Friendship

After I wrote down Tyler’s story a few days ago, I decided to tell another tale of mine that also contains a powerful message, one I fear bears relevance to today.

This incident took place when I was in the 6th grade, a few months after my family had moved from Arizona to California. I was new to the school and hardly knew anyone outside the sixth graders I had classes with. Before I fell into the wrong crowd and became the victim of good old middle school bullying that would put me into contact with just about everybody in the school, I got to know my classmates on a decent level. There was Nicole, who never wore the same outfit twice and wore lots of makeup – a mystery to me back then. Then there was Chris, who always made everyone laugh, even our teachers. There were the guys who were afraid of girls and the girls who were indifferent to guys. There was the popular crowd, the loners, the kids who doodled on their notebooks and the people who made fun of them. Typical middle school.

And then, in the midst of all the different kinds of people and social infrastructures, there was Joe and McKenzie.

Joe and McKenzie were best friends. They talked to other people, certainly, for they were in the ring of popular kids, but more often than not they were together, quietly talking and sharing stories, sharing laughter. Joe always brought sunflower seeds to school – a huge trend back then – and before he shared them with everyone else it always seemed to me like he made sure McKenzie got the first handful. I didn’t pay too much attention to them, for I was caught up in the happenings of my own life then, but I saw them often enough to envy them, to know that their friendship was real.

One day, a month or so after I made my debut as the “new girl”, I was in the middle of my morning English class when our door burst open without warning and rushing in came another teacher, dragging McKenzie beside her. She and my teacher gave each other a look of sorts, then McKenzie quietly took a seat at the back of our classroom and the other teacher left. Without pausing in her teaching for a moment, with no change in her voice whatsoever, my teacher casually walked over to the door and locked it.

My classmates and I shot bemused looks at one another; some of the girls who knew McKenzie tried to get her attention. But she sat silently without making eye contact with any of us, and my teacher went on teaching despite the ten or eleven hands that had just been raised by my bolder classmates.

About five or ten minutes later, our principal came on over the loud speaker and ordered a lockdown. She was very calm and our teacher had already locked our door, so we automatically assumed it was a drill the teachers had known about beforehand. I thought no more about it that day, though looking back now I think I should have been able to put two and two together.

The next day we heard what had happened. I can’t remember who I heard the story from, exactly, and some parts of it are fuzzy in my memory. I know some information was sent home to parents in a letter. The gist of it, however, is nothing I will forget very soon.

Joe and McKenzie had been talking on the phone the night before McKenzie was hurried into our classroom. Joe – happy, smiling, always joking Joe – had told McKenzie he was going to kill himself the next day. He said he was going to come to school the next day with twenty dollars, a note, and a gun in his pocket, and he planned to run away from school midmorning at break. When the twenty dollars ran out, he said, then he would commit suicide.

I can imagine how McKenzie must have pleaded with him not to go through with it. We were all in the sixth grade, for God’s sake. Everybody in my grade was eleven or twelve. But Joe apparently was insistent, and he told McKenzie under no circumstances was she allowed to tell anyone. He had told her and no one else, I’m assuming, so he could say goodbye to his best friend.

McKenzie did the bravest thing anyone in her situation could have possibly done. The next morning, she went straight to the school counselor and told her everything. The councilor told the principal. The principal told all the staff and the teachers and made sure the local police were on standby. By the time Joe got to school that day, the entire administration knew that a student was bringing a gun to campus and that he intended to run away and kill himself.

I’m unsure of some of the details here; it’s been more than eight years since this happened. But one way or another, Joe got wind of the fact that McKenzie, instead of staying silent like he had asked, told on him at the cost of their friendship to save his life. Well, he got angry. Too angry, as any emotionally distraught kid wanting to commit suicide would be. While McKenzie was in class, he decided that before he ran away he was going to find her and kill her.

When that teacher had come running into our classroom with McKenzie at her side, Joe had been ready to burst into that classroom and shoot her and anybody else in his way. By rushing her to our classroom, whoever had figured out what Joe intended to do had protected McKenzie by making it impossible for Joe to find her.

Apparently when Joe got to the classroom where he would have found McKenzie and shot her, police officers were waiting for him. So he panicked and fled school grounds. And, as my parents were told, the officers followed him and gently convinced him to surrender the gun. Maybe he was desperate for someone to stop him, maybe he hadn’t intended to do it all along. Either way, Joe gave up his weapon, and the last thing I ever heard about him, all those years ago, was that he was being sent to get professional help.

Looking back over these events that happened when I was twelve, I don’t think I realized the significance of the bravery McKenzie had when she went against the wishes of her best friend to save his life. I don’t know if their friendship was ever rekindled. I hope it was. But McKenzie had been willing to surrender that friendship in order to do what was best for Joe…and that is something that is too inspiring to properly describe. And she was eleven or twelve at the time. At such a young age, she knew what she had to do and, despite the high cost, she went through and made sure it was done.

Lately in the news so many – too many – teens and young adults are committing suicide day after day. Every one of these can be prevented. I fear that the ones who need help the most are the ones who never speak, never give any warning beforehand. The ones who want to be saved might be the ones who tell their friends they’re going to do it.

If there is anyone who is reading this who has had suicidal thoughts, please, please listen carefully. I personally want you to know that the darkness you are in is only temporary, no matter how hopeless the future seems. Trust me, I was there once. Suicide seems like a safe option sometimes, an easy way out. Sometimes it is comforting to know that if things don’t get better, you have an escape plan.

What you need to know is that you are loved, you are special, and you have a lifetime ahead of you that will be better than the life you are living now. Please dial 1-800-SUICIDE now (1-800-784-2433) and talk to someone you can trust, someone who wants to hear what you need to say.

And to those of you reading this who know loved ones who have talked to you about committing suicide… be brave for them and help them. Be brave like McKenzie was for Joe. You have the ability to save a life simply by telling somebody what your friend or family member intends to do, and I know you have the courage to do it.

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