Over the Edge

The suicide of a 14-year-old boy

On the morning of March 10, Sidney Hatchett lay in a pale-blue coffin at the Vanella's Funeral Chapel on the Lower East Side. A slew of gifts surrounded him—a Yankees hat, three teddy bears, a white stuffed rabbit, a bundle of silk flowers. Sidney had told his mother he wanted an Akademiks denim outfit for Easter this year, so that's what she had bought for him to be buried in. There was no sign of how Sidney had died, except that his face was slightly puffy. He'd spent two days in the East River before police divers found his body. He was 14.

One week earlier, on the last day of his life, Sidney Hatchett woke up at 6:45 a.m. and started getting ready for school. Most mornings he didn't spend too much time worrying about how he looked, but on this day he pulled out his favorite sweater—the navy one with red stripes—and he ironed his cargo pants. It was 23 degrees outside, so to keep warm he put a pair of blue jeans on underneath his cargo pants. He walked his eight-year-old brother Shaquelle to his bus stop, waited with him for the bus to arrive, then headed home, stopping at a bodega to get a snack for his sister to eat later that day.

As the oldest child, Sidney regularly helped his siblings get off to school, even on those days when he didn't go himself. Sidney, who was in ninth grade, had already missed about 30 days of school this year. While he'd once been an honor roll student, he had announced recently that he didn't like school anymore. His mother didn't argue with him; instead she let him stay home. Sidney's school notified the city's Administration for Children's Services about his absences, and later today an ACS caseworker was scheduled to come to the apartment to investigate.

A memorial for Sidney, March 10, 2006
photo: Giulietta Verdon-Roe
A memorial for Sidney, March 10, 2006

Now Sidney had no choice but to go back to school. He kissed two fingers and pressed them against his mother's cheek—his usual goodbye gesture—then left with his six-year-old sister Shakeema. The family lived on the Lower East Side on a short street called Rutgers Slip, just north of the Manhattan Bridge.

There was no need to walk toward the water—Shakeema's school was in the other direction—but Sidney headed that way, darting across South Street. When they reached the promenade, he took off his parka and handed it to his sister. "Bye, Keema," he said. "I'm going to jump in the water."

"No, please don't," she cried.

But Sidney had already made up his mind. He climbed over the barricade and hurled himself into the freezing river.

Seventeen days after Sidney's death, his mother, Keisha Davis, sits on a sofa in her living room and talks about him for more than two hours. Keisha does not use the word "suicide" to describe Sidney's death. Instead she says "my son passed," or she speaks about "the day Sidney went in the water." She doesn't deny that Sidney leapt into the East River; she just can't seem to accept the fact that he ended his own life. He did not leave a note; he'd never attempted suicide before; and he wasn't preoccupied with death, at least not as far as she knew.

Keisha Davis, 30, describes her son variously as a "goofball" and "a little dad" because he helped out so much with his younger siblings. "If I had a bad day, Sidney was going to do something to take my mind off it," she says. He'd move around the apartment, practicing a dance he called the Shake, wiggling his upper body while his hands hung at his sides. And he was a perpetual prankster, stealing her spoon when she went off to the bathroom in the middle of a meal, then giggling when she returned and couldn't find it.

When Sidney was in eighth grade, he used to come home brimming with stories about what had happened at school that day. The next year, after he entered University Neighborhood High School—which was started a few years ago in collaboration with NYU—these conversations stopped. "Did you have a good day?" his mother would ask. "Yeah," he'd say. "What did you do?" she'd ask. "Nothing," he'd reply.

Keisha began getting calls from a guidance counselor, who, she says, accused Sidney of starting fights in school. As these calls became more frequent, Keisha got angry; she didn't believe her son was a troublemaker. (The guidance counselor and school principal did not return calls for this story; ACS is continuing to investigate Keisha, since she has two children at home.) According to Keisha, the guidance counselor encouraged her to have Sidney "evaluated." Keisha wasn't sure what this meant, but Sidney didn't want to participate. Keisha sided with Sidney.

When Sidney said he didn't want to go to school at all, Keisha let him stay home. Mother and son would hang out together, get lunch, go to the barbershop. "I was letting him know that I understand, I'm not angry with you," she says. "Because I know it's not a situation where you don't want to learn, or you don't want to go to school. It's a situation where you're stressed out, and I was trying to relieve some of that stress."

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