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The Leap

“Really? I can say that?” he asked, delightedly.

Though there was no intermittency for Carla, she had to make arrangements: medical examiner, undertaker, funeral, burial. When she arrived home, with friends and, later, her rabbis from Rodeph Sholom there to help her, a package was waiting as well: the track shoes Teddy had ordered not two days earlier.

Mourning rituals, when they work, function like emotional retirement accounts: putting off the worst of grief, the long slog of hopeless yearning, until it can be better borne. But how could this grief ever be borne? Still, the funeral was, in a way, the best of it: Thousands turned out at the synagogue—the block had to be closed off—and Teddy’s wrestling and football teammates formed a kind of honor guard as the plain pine coffin passed. Clay somehow managed to make a speech (“This is why it is so hard to say good-bye, is because I was the person closest to him”) and then at the cemetery lightened the mood with his earnestness. (He kept shoveling dirt onto the grave, getting more and more tired, until someone informed him that the shoveling was only symbolic.) The hours of shivah passed in a blur, Clay wearing one of Teddy’s huge football jerseys, with those multitasking Dalton mothers BlackBerrying all the arrangements. City Harvest had to pick up the leftovers night after night.

But when the rituals subsided, Carla was left with a mystery that made her grief even worse. The medical examiner, whose report I obtained, found no alcohol, steroids, or illegal drugs in Teddy’s blood. The psychopharmacologist who treated Teddy asserted that he was not and had never been diagnosed with depression. (Citalopram, though marketed for depression, had been prescribed off-label, as is common with Asperger’s, for obsessive-compulsive-like behaviors.) Was it even a suicide? An Asperger’s specialist the family consulted could suggest no known link between the syndrome and Teddy’s death, unless perhaps a recent traumatic event had triggered the “I see no way out” ideation that is typical in Asperger’s kids. But no one outside of Dalton yet knew what such an event might be.

It took more than a week for administrators to share what they must have learned quite quickly about Teddy’s unprecedented cheating. Granted, as Ava Seave says, “they’re not C.S.I., and putting together a story of what happened in something like this is not a trivial skill.” But it’s hard not to connect the delay to what appeared to be a general policy of extreme caution and controlling information—or, as a Dalton parent put it, “running for cover.”

One person’s running for cover is another’s due diligence. In any case, the school hired NYU’s Child Study Center to help the community deal with the tragedy. (The founder of the center is a former Dalton parent whose wife teaches art in the middle school.) After talking to worried administrators and teachers, Anthony Charuvastra, a psychiatrist at the center’s Institute for Trauma and Resilience, told the student-run Daltonian newspaper that the healing process could be compared to recuperation from a heart attack: “no strenuous exercise for several months, while the remaining heart muscle recovers.” Charuvastra, who, for reasons of confidentiality, declined to comment for this article, therefore recommended the removal of suicide-related literature from the curriculum, though not, as rumor had it, from the library—and in fact Dalton teachers stopped assigning such works as Hedda Gabler, Death of a Salesman, Anna Karenina, The Sound and the Fury, and Mrs. Dalloway. “Beautiful stories that depict suicide are associated with higher risk of emulation in young people,” he told the Daltonian.

The fear of contagion is a genuine concern, as “cluster” or “copycat” suicides at Cornell and NYU demonstrate. But guidelines offered by suicide experts do not always agree on how to balance that fear with the need for traumatized teenagers (and others in a community) to express their feelings together. Joanne L. Harpel, the director of survivor initiatives at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, believes that treating suicide differently from other deaths, for instance by not acknowledging to schoolmates what happened, is a mistake. “What you don’t want to do is reinforce the stigma, which can be deeply painful to the student’s family and friends,” she says. “At the same time, because adolescents are especially at risk of suicide contagion, you also want to be careful not to romanticize or glamorize the death.”

No one could accuse Dalton of having done the latter. A front-page article entitled “Teddy Graubard: Lasting Memories” in the March 12, 2009, issue of the Daltonian goes to great lengths to avoid the word “suicide.” Instead of a photo of Teddy, it is accompanied by a shot of the 1,000 origami cranes that students and faculty folded as “a means of remembrance.” While preparing a subsequent issue, editors were told by the school that a letter from Ava Seave, in which she gently questioned the removal of the literature, could not be published because it came from someone outside the Dalton community. And though psychologists were made available in the weeks after the trauma, kids I spoke to (all of whom insisted on anonymity out of fear of some kind of reprisal) said that talking about their grief to strangers—and doing so in private—was not what they wanted.