Jadin Bell dreamed of being a cheerleader.
Dwight Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan had all been high school cheer-leaders. In their day, cheer-leading had been an all-male activity. Until as late as the 1950s, in fact, female cheer-leaders were banned.
“The reputation of having been a valiant cheer-leader,” wrote the editors of The Nation in 1911, “is one of the most valuable things a boy can take away from college. As a title to promotion in professional or public life, it ranks hardly second to that of having been a quarterback.” But, like so many other things, cheer-leading in America has changed since those days.
During his sophomore year at high school in La Grande, Oregon, Jadin successfully tried out for the cheer-leading team – the only boy to do so in recent memory. Jadin had hoped that cheer-leading would be a path to some measure of social acceptance in his broader community. It wasn’t.
On the afternoon of Saturday 19 January 2013, carrying a length of rope, the fifteen-year-old climbed onto his school’s playground equipment and hanged himself. A passer-by found him nine minutes later, but in that time all brain activity had shut down, and Jadin never regained consciousness. After ten days, his parents, Joe Bell and Lola Lathrop, decided to take him off life support, and Jadin died on 3 February 2013.
Jadin Bell’s suicide, in the words of Pauls Toutonghi, “became part of the nation’s ongoing dialogue about bullying,” (See Note 1/ below.)
In late April, Joe Bell set off on a walk across the country to share the story of his son’s death and raise awareness about bullying.
On 15 October, The New York Times published an item under the headline, Oregon Father’s Memorial Trek Across Country Ends in a Family’s Second Tragedy. On 9 October, Joe Bell’s life had “ended in an instant on a two-lane road in rural eastern Colorado. He was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer whose driver had apparently fallen asleep, the state police said.”
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that each year in America, 4,600 young people take their own lives,” Pauls Toutonghi tells us. “This number is astonishing in its bigness. Yet the shocking truth – the idea that the way we live, as a society, is killing thousands of our children each year – produces little disturbance in our collective consciousness. Maybe this is because each suicide feels so individualized.”
On National Coming Out Day (11 October 2013), Brendon McCampbell wrote: “I am queer. With the loving acceptance of my family and friends, I can unabashedly admit this. As a child, however, I struggled greatly with my sexuality. I was poisoned by our society to believe that there was something wrong with me. The truth is this: there is something wrong with our society. We need to accept, support, and love people regardless of sex, gender, race, shape, ability, religion, or politics. Today is National Coming Out Day, and I hope you accept everyone in your life. We need to live in a world where Jadin was accepted by his peers and lived happily with his father and family.” (Facebook, 11 October 2013)
In his posthumously-published autobiography, Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From My Life: Poetry and Truth), Goethe wrote that “suicide is an event of human nature which, whatever may be said and done with respect to it, demands the sympathy of every man, and in every epoch must be discussed anew.”
1/ Much of the information I have used in this post was adapted from Pauls Toutonghi’s heartfelt article – “They ripped him apart”: Searching for answers in the suicide of bullied teen Jadin Bell – published in Salon on 8 September 2013.
2/ Read about the passing of Joe Bell on Joe’s Walk for Change. Also see La Grande remembers Joe and Jadin Bell: ‘Stand up to a bully’ .