Immolation of a teacher

Shocked I was to read of the maths teacher in France who set fire to herself in public during the morning break at her secondary school (see story). Libération describes the scene afterwards: “In the courtyard, a large black spot. Around a pole, the charred ground. And then there are those footprints, black as well. Thirty highly visible footprints that trace a vague diagonal path in the playground, to the entrance of a building. There, other marks of fire covered by the sticky texture of dry ice.”

And what actually happened during the break? Again Libération: “It’s about ten o’clock yesterday morning in the vocational school Jean Moulin in Béziers (Hérault). Break time. Lisa B., 44, mathematics teacher, has raised her arms to splash her head and whole body with fuel. A huge flame shoots up. “More than two metres,” said a student who witnessed the scene. The teacher walks forward, a human torch, as the students scream, “blowing kisses off her hand,” said one witness. “I do this for you,” she is reported to have said.”

She died. What had happened that this teacher got so depressed that she could see no other solution? The case raises issues of the relations between students and individual teachers, and the stress that the teachers experience. Some teachers can cope with it, some even thrive on the struggle to bring up the young students; others, however, do not. Some leave the profession, but some remain and suffer in degrees of tormented silence. But to die by fire?

Self-incineration is an extremely painful way to commit suicide. It is not quick, and the accelerant makes the burning much more intense than accidental burning. The victim is conscious almost to the end. It is a desperate act. Rebekah Doley quotes Bostik, “Self-immolation is an act not often committed, not casually arrived at, and, most assuredly, not easily forgotten. As an act of suicide, it is more than just an anguished cry for help – it is a seering (sic) demand to be remembered.”

I remember the impact of Jan Palach’s suicide in Prague in 1969. The self-immolation is to send out a message; a political or social message. In Jan Palach’s case, a message that has never been forgotten.

But then I remember my cousin. His was not a public self-incineration. I expressed it thus some years ago.

The Burning

We wonder and we wonder
How could it have come about?
He sought out a remote valley
His life had fallen apart.
Found by a fireman by chance
The burned shell of his body
His soul had long departed.

We don’t know the reason
Why his mind had flipped
And led him to the empty moor.
He stopped the car and gripped
The wheel tightly for how long
We don’t know he waited
Rethinking his decision.

What torment in the soul
Makes a man set himself on fire?
How much petrol do you need
To burn yourself to death?
We do not know, we cannot know
The agony that seized his body
Or the pain that burned his mind.

Was it his job, was it his broken marriage
What was it that he could not communicate?
The terror of life – so great a burden
To make him drive to where
He wouldn’t be found
Alive – makes the inquisitory flames
A relief, a conscience clear.

No note, no message
Just a burned out car and dying body,
The passing fireman shocked but cool
Knew what to do, but could not find the soul.
The shell of his life had vitrified
Yet his being had long gone –
But we remember the pain.

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