Over the Edge

The suicide of a 14-year-old boy

After Sidney's death, Keisha heard stories that helped explain why he'd been so adamant about not going to school: Other kids told her he'd been regularly taunted and beaten. One instance involved his cell phone. Sidney had told Keisha that it disappeared when someone took it from his pocket; after his death, she heard that kids at school had attacked him and stolen the phone. "It's not something he'd come home and tell me," she says. "He was very protective. And you know how 14-year-old boys are—he was probably ashamed." About his decision to jump in the river, she says flatly, "He was bullied to death."

It is one explanation for Sidney's suicide, but it may not be the whole explanation.

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

Sidney Hatchett on the day of his eighth-grade graduation, 2005.
photo: courtesy of Keisha Davis
Keisha Davis gave birth to Sidney when she was 16 years old, then dropped out of high school. When Sidney was four, they entered the city's homeless shelter system. That first night, they stayed at the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx, where she slept in a chair and he slept on her lap. It was the beginning of an odyssey through the shelter system that lasted more than a year. Keisha recalls that she and Sidney spent about seven months in a welfare hotel near Kennedy Airport, then transferred to a shelter in Bushwick.

Eventually, they moved into apart-ment 19L, the two-bedroom 19th-floor place on Rutgers Slip. Keisha had grown up in the Mitchel Houses, a housing project in Mott Haven, and the fact that she was now raising her son somewhere other than the projects was a point of pride. (About the Bronx project where she grew up, she says: "I hated it; it was violent; it was nasty; it always smelled.")

Their apartment on Rutgers Slip is down the street from two projects—the La Guardia Houses and the Rutgers Houses—and it felt like a step up. It is a mixed-income building with a doorman, laundry machines in the lobby, and a community center on the first floor. Section 8, the federal voucher program, subsidizes her rent, and she pays $326 a month. Still, it's a stretch for Keisha to make the rent; she works as a cashier at Pathmark earning seven dollars an hour.

Inside apartment 19L, Sidney shared a small bedroom with his two siblings. The closet door leans off its hinges, the result of a wrestling match between him and his brother. Inside is an empty box for a Game Boy Advance SP—the Christmas present that was in his pocket when he jumped in the water. There are no bookshelves, but beneath a broken TV set are well-worn copies of two of his favorite books, 145th Street: Short Stories and Handbook for Boys: A Novel, both by Walter Dean Myers.

The day before he killed himself, Sidney visited the apartment of Steven Neville, his cousin and best friend, who lives upstairs on the 20th floor. The two played the video game NBA Live 2006, and Steven says he didn't notice anything amiss: "He seemed all right to me." Steven and Sidney had been friends since they were seven. When the weather was warmer, they played basketball together in the park across the street. If anyone tried to bother Sidney, who was smaller than other kids his age, Steven would intervene.

When Steven heard that Sidney had jumped into the East River, he was stunned. Asked why he thought Sidney took his life, Steven does not have an answer. The boys attended different high schools, and Steven says Sidney never told him he was being harassed or bullied at school. "He kept that secret," he says. "He didn't tell nobody."

Every month, Sidney got his hair cut by George Rosario, a barber who works at a shop on Madison Street. "He was real quiet, sadness in his eyes. Just a regular ghetto kid. Just like all of us," says George, 34, who grew up in the neighborhood. George ran into Sidney on the street all the time; the two would greet each other by slapping palms. While seated in George's chair, Sidney sometimes talked about the fights he got into at school. To George, the tales sounded familiar; he was not overly concerned. "Who doesn't go through that in the 'hood?" he says.

Sidney's parents started dating when his mother was 13 and his father was a few years older. His father, also named Sidney, was the youngest of seven siblings; his family called him Peanut. The two lived across the street from each other in the Bronx. "I thought I was in love," Keisha says. "I thought he was going to save me and we were going to be together forever." The fairy tale faded quickly; she and Peanut split after four years. While in the shelter system, she met another man, whom she has been with for nearly 10 years. They are not married, but she refers to him as "Sidney's stepfather"; he is the father of her two younger children.

Over the years, Sidney stayed connected to his father's family through the efforts of his paternal grandmother, Victoria Felton. On Friday afternoons, she'd send someone to get him so he could come up to the Bronx to hang out for the weekend. She gave him a nickname—Jazz—and when he was in elementary school, he announced that he wanted to live with her. Keisha agreed, and Sidney moved to the Bronx for almost a year before deciding to return home.

« Previous Page
Next Page »