Every high school class is remembered for something – a state championship, a school play, a prank for the ages. But as next month’s graduation approached, the Waynflete School Class of 2016’s legacy loomed large and burdensome.

“We’re going to remember this for the rest of our lives,” said senior Willy Burdick of Scarborough. “And we should end the year not being the senior class with two suicides that happened in the year, but the senior class that did something about it.”

He sat at a picnic table Monday at Waynflete’s Fore River Fields with fellow senior athletes Nina Moore and Christian Rowe. The wind blew hard across the freshly cut grass, the promise of summer held back by the lingering chill of a cold season that can’t end soon enough.

It happened first on Oct. 31 and again on March 13. Two female students at Waynflete – one a sophomore, the other a junior – took their own lives, the first time in anyone’s memory that suicide has cast its tragic shadow over the private school on Portland’s West End.

By all accounts, the school’s handling of the tragedies has been exemplary. Upon learning of the deaths, and with each family’s permission, administrators posted remarkably open and insightful messages to the student body on the school’s website.

Beyond that, the school consulted with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Maine to help students channel their grief. For some, that meant sticking as closely as possible to their daily routine; for others, a quiet session away from class with a trusted teacher or counselor to try and navigate the unfathomable.

But kids are kids. And away from the adults, they still talked among themselves. And it was there that these students, especially the seniors, felt the need to do something, anything, to counteract the cloud that threatened to hang over them right up to graduation day and beyond.

So Burdick, brave young man, logged on to the senior class Facebook page.

“I know that I personally have been incredibly affected by these incidents and I want to do something about it,” he wrote back in March. “We have a lot of free time coming up during senior projects and I think that would be a perfect time to research and educate people about suicide and how to prevent it.”

Moore, from Freeport, and Rowe, from South Portland, had been talking to each other about the same thing. Like Burdick, they’re lacrosse players (as was one of the suicide victims).

“There’s a whole stigma around mental health,” said Rowe. “Nina and I were having conversations all the time. I think a lot of students were. But it was really good for Willy to come out and say it. That’s where Nina and I came up with the idea of a lacrosse play day.”

It’s scheduled for Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Fore River Fields, 283 Osgood St., in Portland. And it’s about a lot more than lacrosse or, for that matter, Waynflete.

Suicide has cast its pall over two other local high schools – Falmouth High School and Greely High School in Cumberland – since the beginning of this school year.

Since Moore set up a Facebook page titled “Mental Health Awareness Play Day and Fundraiser,” players from those schools have promised they’ll be there – not for a day of competition, but rather for one of community.

“For me, a lot of it is about bringing mental health out into the light from wherever it is right now,” said Moore. “It’s really important to make it OK to talk about mental illness – just as it is OK to talk about your broken leg or cancer or something like that. It’s an illness and people can’t help that about themselves.”

Sunday’s event aims, if only for a day, to turn the spotlight away from all the pressure of college acceptances and, perish the thought, rejections. Away from the need to be the best, to score the highest, to hit all those marks that adolescents too often silently mistake as measures of their self-worth – until one day they find themselves in a hole too deep to escape.

“I feel like kids are afraid of admitting that they’re struggling,” said Rowe. “Because all that you want to do is look perfect. All society wants to hear is that you’re a success and all they are pushing for is for you to succeed. They’re not willing to accept that you may be having trouble.”

If you’re a teenager reading this right now and nodding your head in agreement, then perhaps there’s a place for you out there on Sunday.

You don’t have to be a lacrosse player. They’ll have Frisbees, Wiffle balls and bats, and other activities to get your heart pumping.

They’ll also have plenty of food and maybe a speaker or two from mental health programs like Family Hope in Scarborough, which helps families and friends help those with mental illness get the help they need.

They’ll even have T-shirts for sale to raise money for suicide prevention – printed on the back are the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) and five tips to help suicide prevention. (The most poignant: “Love yourself before loving others.”)

What they won’t have is a memorial service. The time for that has passed. This is about looking forward and, as the outgoing leaders of their school, doing everything they can to ensure that what happened during their senior year never happens again.

As of Thursday, the play day’s Facebook page showed that 91 people plan to show up Sunday. Another 49 are listed as “interested.”

“This is one approach to filling in that blank for people who don’t know what to talk about, don’t know what to say, don’t know how to respond,” said Moore. “Here’s one way.”

It’s easy. Just come out and play.

 


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