Just One: A Short Poem for a Short Life

Just One

one name to skip at roll call
one desk to be taken away
one question lacks an answer
one hope has gone astray

one past is now but memory
one future has fallen apart
one action ripples outward
and breaks so many hearts


I teach at a secondary school in Hong Kong. Last week a colleague told me that a female Primary Six (Grade 6) student at one of our two feeder schools had committed suicide by jumping from her apartment building. This poem is a response to that.

Hong Kong does not have a particularly high suicide rate, and contrary to sensational press reports (e.g, https://www.timeout.com/hong-kong/en-hongkong/the-shocking-rise-of-child-suicide-051916), the rate of child/teen suicide has remained constant over the last couple of decades. However, this doesn’t take away from the individual tragedy of each life lost. How can a girl with her whole life ahead of her choose to die? What desperation drives her to leap from a building?

The reasons why children and young teens commit suicide is never very clear. Growing up can be stressful in the best of situations. Setbacks that to an adult seem trivial can be emotionally crushing to a teen. Hong Kong has a pressure cooker atmosphere that only makes things worse. At home, it is quite common for a family of four or five to share a 400-square-foot flat (At one point, my in-laws moved in and there were eleven of us sharing an 700-square-foot apartment), so there is not much personal or private space. Some parents demand success—tiger moms expecting their house cats to be tiger kids—while some don’t seem to care at all. Problems at home, even the mere fact of living in a single-parent family, are often considered a source of shame, so many young people may keep negative feelings bottled up..

At school, Primary Six is an especially stressful time as students need to apply to secondary school. Local secondary schools here are divided into three bands based on the students’ academic ability. The strongest students are allocated to Band One schools while the weakest are all lumped together in Band Three schools.As Chinese culture places a strong emphasis on education, there is often great pressure on primary students to perform well enough to get allocated to a ‘good’ secondary school.

In short, sources of stress are all around. This is why my favorite quite is from Ian Maclaren (though it is often attributed to Plato)

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.



I don’t usually write poems that make use of a regular meter and a regular rhyme, but I wanted a very simple feel for this poem—something a young student could easily follow and understand. Also, through the simple style, vocabulary and structure, I hoped to evoke a sense of innocence.

Related Work

One of the sad things about being a teacher is that sometimes students pass away. this is a song I wrote in memory of a former student of mine.


~by longzijun


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