By Jeff Ellis
I have been trying to tell Jeremy’s story for a decade now.
Jeremy Wade Delle. You may not know the name but if you’ve listened to FM radio any time since 1992, then you’ve heard a musician’s rendering of Jeremy Wade Delle. If you’ve watched MTV, you’ve seen a filmmaker’s vision of Jeremy Wade Delle. Jeremy is the deceased teen martyred by Pearl Jam in the song of the same name. He is the inspiration for that music video that, a few years back, won all those awards.
However, before Jeremy Wade Delle could become a part of pop culture, he had to walk into my old English classroom at Richardson High School, put a gun to his head, and pull the trigger.
In the final months of 1990, he did just that.
I was seventeen years old.
Ever since it happened, people have asked me, “Did you know him?”
There was a time when I would lie and say yes. I used to skip classes with him. I used to joke with him. Sometimes, he seemed somewhat sad but certainly never suicidal. By killing himself in a public school at the age of 15, Jeremy became the type of legend that I spent my entire youth dreaming of being. While I was trying to establish some sort of persona for myself by sending out stories and poems, Jeremy was a household name. By claiming to know him, I was trying to steal a little bit of his legend for my own.
The truth of the matter was that I never met Jeremy Delle. I probably passed him in the hall several times during that semester but I would never have been able to pick him out of a lineup.
He was a pudgy little sophomore. I was an upperclassman. According to my friends who did know him, Jeremy was one of those kids you would see hanging out behind the school, puffing on a cigarette and falling off their skateboards. I was Vice President of the Speech and Debate Club. I wore a suit to school every Friday and spent my weekends at tournaments across Dallas. We might as well have been going to different schools.
It happened on Tuesday, at the beginning of second period. I was in my theater class. We used to meet in the auditorium and would spend most of the class hanging out on the stage, ignoring our well-meaning but ineffectual teacher. Fifteen minutes into class, the screaming started.
It came from out in the hall. A girl screaming, “NO! NO! NO!” A girl screaming in the hallway of a high school; nothing unusual. We laughed it off. But the screaming didn’t stop. “NO! NO! NO!” Slowly, we all realized something was truly wrong. Something had actually happened.
“HE’S DEAD!” the girl screamed.
Our teacher ran out to the hall and most of the class followed.
As for me, I stayed seated on the stage. I was trying to ignore it all. That’s the way I handled problems back then. Sometimes, it’s the way I handle them now. One of the students – his name was Brad and he’d be dead himself in the Persian Gulf within the upcoming year – walked back into the room and said, “Some kid shot himself.”
“What?” I replied. He had to be joking.
“Some sophomore shot himself,” Brad repeated. His voice was so matter-of-fact that I can still hear its blandness. How should he have said it? How do you say something like that without sounding strange?
Our teacher ordered the rest of the class back into the auditorium. He told us to get off the stage and sit out in the audience section. Our principal, Mr. Bishop, herded Jeremy Delle’s former classmates into the auditorium and told them to sit on the stage and wait. As if they were sheep, they silently did as told.
They sat up there on stage; a numb collection of lost children. My class watched them as if we were just sitting through a rather somber play and those numb children were just actors. Some of them were crying. Despite later rumors, no one was splattered with Jeremy’s blood. Most of them just had the same blank, stunned look on their face. I saw some people I knew. There was the girl that I’d been flirting with since the 8th grade. A year later, I’d ask her to prom just to discover that my best friend had beat me to the punch. Another one of them would be my debate partner during my senior year. Later, I found out they’d all been in Mrs. Barnett’s Sophomore English class. Mrs. Barnett was my former teacher. Once she told my mother, “Though Jeff ’s grades don’t reflect it, he is a brilliant student.” It was one of the few times during my teen years (or any year after that) when I was truly happy.
But for now, all that was important was that every one of these people had just seen some kid blow his brains out. One of my classmates decided to play counselor. He went over them (probably humming Kumbaya in his head) and told them to start talking, to express their feelings. No one said anything as Mr. Bishop led him away.
A few minutes later, we heard the sirens of approaching ambulances and police and it was then that I finally had my first real reaction. I felt something sinking deep into the pit of my stomach as it registered that those sirens were coming to take a dead body out of my old English classroom. A couple of police officers came into the auditorium to talk to the witnesses. The rest of us were sent upstairs to the main drama classroom; the Studio we used to call it in an attempt to bring some Warholian glitz to our little department.
We stayed in the Studio for two hours, waiting for some word. We split into small, informal “discussion” groups. Some sat in circles and cried. Some wondered which of the school’s many Jeremys had killed himself. And my group? There were six of us and after we decided that school would probably be cancelled for the rest of the day, we made plans to catch a movie. I know that sounds awfully cold on our parts. Maybe that was our way of coping. Or maybe that’s just the way we really were. I can’t remember for sure.
After two hours, Mr. Bishop came over the speakers and announced a student had shot himself. He didn’t give the name. Instead, he announced that this was tragedy. And he encouraged us to stay out of the way of the cops. Finally, he said that he had spent the last few hours debating whether to cancel the rest of the day’s classes. We all held our breaths, hoping to hear the words of freedom.
Instead, Mr. Bishop said, “However, canceling classes will not change what has happened. As soon as the bell rings, please go to your next regularly scheduled class.”
Everyone groaned. We still had to go to class!? Why were we being punished!? After all, we hadn’t shot ourselves in front of crowded classroom.
What were the reactions that day? It is true that there were a few seniors who wandered around saying, “Leave it to a Sophomore.” One of my best friends was sick that day and later, he bitterly remarked, “The first time something interesting hap-pens at school and I miss it!” Others ran around with tears streaming down their faces, talking about how life was a “dark journey” and all that other trendy young nihilism. Most of the school, though, was just stunned. Stunned and silent.
I went to the rest of my classes but no one bothered to teach that day. Some teachers talked of tragedy and others just asked (begged really) us to entertain ourselves. In my creative writing class, an aspiring poetess named Julia told me I was heartless when I complained about not getting to go home early. We then ate lunch together and spent the whole time discussing Heathers, a relatively new film at that time. We wondered if this would start a new trend at Richardson High School of students shooting themselves in English class. Who would be next we wondered? A cheerleader maybe? How about a jock? No, probably not. They had everything to live for. It’d probably be the blue-haired boy who claimed he was bisexual. Or maybe the pregnant white trash girl who said ratt instead of right. Oh, I was affected by the tragedy of it all now. Either that or else it was Julia’s thick brown hair and long, shapely legs. But something was getting to me. At least until my next class.
After the final school bell rang, I went by the Speech and Debate room. We had a meeting scheduled for that afternoon. Our coach asked if I thought we should actually still have the meeting. “He wasn’t a member of Speech and Debate, was he?” I replied. Again, maybe that was just my way of coping. Or maybe I really was just that cold and heartless. I can’t really remember for sure. After all, it was a couple of years ago.
Jeremy Delle made the national news and for a week, there were several urgent, breathless reports about depressed kids with guns. There were rumors about why Jeremy had killed himself but the few people who had actually known him didn’t think he’d been any more depressed than usual. His parents were divorced and he lived with his father who some claimed was a drunk who used to beat his son like some sort of Dickensian monster. I saw Mr. Delle on the news after his son’s death and he looked no worse than anyone else’s father.
As for Richardson High School, life got back to normal.
They kept Mrs. Barnett’s classroom closed and boarded up for the rest of the year and occasionally, someone would randomly break into tears. The counselors remained active to help the distraught.
However, the rest of us had classes to attend. There was a rumor that school would be cancelled so all of us strangers could go to Jeremy’s funeral and maybe catch a movie afterward, but it didn’t happen.
A year later, I first decided to write a story about Jeremy Delle. At first, I was going to write in the voice of Jeremy but then I realized I wasn’t suicidal and couldn’t really relate. So, I decided to write about the school’s reaction. I was going to write about that day; or more honestly, what that day should have been like. In my story, you wouldn’t find me dismissing Jeremy’s death as a way to get out of school early. You wouldn’t hear me asking, “He wasn’t a member of Speech and Debate, was he?” No, in my story, you’d find Charles Abraham Wax, sensitive writer dealing with human tragedy.
One day, after school, I was sitting out in the courtyard where I had eaten lunch with Julia and talked about Heathers. I had my notebook and I was jotting down everything I could remember about that day. Stephanie, an old friend of mine (I’d known her for two years which, in the hurly-burly world of high school, made her an old friend), walked out to the courtyard and asked me what I was doing.
“Writing a story about Jeremy Delle,” I said, “I’m trying to remember everything that happened that day.”
“The entire school was so quiet,” she said, “for the next two weeks. Nobody said anything.”
I didn’t remember the silence lasting quite that long but I wrote her words down anyway. Stephanie was cute and I wasn’t going to argue with her memories.
Suddenly, she said, “Why do you want to write about that? People are just now getting over it.”
That caught me off guard. “I thought everyone was over it.”
“They’re not,” she said.
I never did write that story.
When Pearl Jam’s Jeremy first showed up on the radio, I was a community college freshman. I can’t tell you exactly when I first heard it. All I know is that whenever I turned on the radio in the dying months of 1992, I heard the sound of Pearl Jam’s oh-so- tortured lead singer, Eddie Vedder, intoning, “Jeremy spoke in class today.” I knew the song was based on a true story of teen suicide but for some reason, I never made the connection. Even now, a part of me finds it impossible to believe that a bunch of guys in Seattle built their fame on a guy I went to high school with.
The truth about the song was revealed to me in October when I was appearing in a school play. Twenty young Texans were cast as Cockneys in turn-of-the-century England. It was a comedy, a murder mystery, a social drama, and best forgotten. One night, in between acts, I was bonding with two other actors, Sean and Josh, over a pack of cigarettes. Josh asked me where I’d graduated from.
“Richardson High School,” I replied.
Sean grinned and started to sing, “Jeremy spoke in class today . . .”
“What?” I said.
“That happened at your school, dude,” Josh replied.
Sean asked me if I had known Jeremy. And yes, I certainly did. I used to smoke with him. It was really a bummer when he died, I’d explain with a sad shrug, but it had to happen some day.
Sean and Josh were properly impressed.
By January of 1993, I had transferred to the University of North Texas. Higher Education had never been one of the major goals of my life and my sole reason for going to UNT was to hang out with my then-girlfriend, Jordan (not her real name). One night, we were watching MTV. The properly bland VJ announced that the next video would be, “Pearl Jam’s Jeremy.”
I watched in quiet fury. On TV, a thin, dark-haired twerp who couldn’t have been any older than 12 sat in an impersonal, white classroom that looked like something out of a Kubrick film. This wasn’t the classroom where I’d been a “brilliant student.” I watched as other children, even younger than this fauxJeremy, pointed, laughed, and pushed him towards suicide. They all wore what appeared to be private school uniforms – white shirts, plaid skirts, dark slacks. In the world of Pearl Jam, the Catholic Church apparently ran my high school. Part of me knew that this video was meant to be a reflection of the song and not reality. But as I listened to Eddie Vedder declare that Jeremy had spoken in class today, I could only think of the innocents who couldn’t bring themselves to speak after he splattered his brains over Mrs. Barnett’s walls.
The video was over in six minutes. It took six minutes to martyr Jeremy Delle and turn him into some symbol for alienated Generation X. It took six minutes to tell the rest of the world that his blood was on the hands of a girl I wanted to take to prom and of a boy who later became my debate partner. It took six minutes to recreate the truth into something with a good beat. You could sing along to the tragedy. I turned to Jordan and I told her, half-jokingly, that once I was a famous whatever, “I’m going to track down Eddie Vedder and kick his whiny Seattle ass.”
A few months later, Eddie came to me and about a thousand other students. Pearl Jam was touring to promote its new CD. One of their stops would be UNT and it seemed the entire campus, myself included, was swept up in Vedder fever. No matter how much I hated that video, Eddie was a superstar and he was coming to my college.
Tickets were sold in the Student Union. Jordan and I were amongst the hundreds who camped outside to get the best seats. As we waited for the Union to open, all talk centered around Eddie Vedder. About how Eddie truly cared about his fans. About how Eddie was so deep and complex. About how Eddie could walk on water. We debated who would win in a fight, Eddie or Kurt Cobain? We agreed it was no contest. Eddie all the way. Why? I think because he was coming to UNT.
Inevitably, the talk came around to Jeremy. Everyone seemed to know somebody who committed suicide. And I do mean everyone. It was almost as if a dead friend was the newest fashion accessory. I found myself wondering if perhaps our fellow students had specifically gone out of their way to befriend the most depressed people they could find just to make sure they had a fair shot of notching up at least one suicide-related trauma.
Everyone knew a Jeremy. However, as I proudly informed them, I knew the Jeremy.
“Whoaaaa!” came the replies, “Really?”
Yeah, I told them. I knew him. I repeated what I’d confided to Josh, Sean, and so many others. I had it down to an art. Everyone was properly impressed. Everyone except for Jordan.
After we had gotten the tickets, she asked me if I’d really known Jeremy Delle. Now, this was my girlfriend. This was Jordan and I loved her in my narcissistic, immature way. I couldn’t lie to her. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the truth either.
Instead, I just shrugged.
“Do you remember what you said after you saw the video?” she asked.
Again, I didn’t want to tell the truth. So I just shrugged again and let the conversation end.
Pearl Jam arrived three months later. They played in the Coliseum; the same place where graduates got their diplomas and where UNT’s basketball team lost every game like clock-work. More people came to see Eddie Vedder than ever attended graduation or a game. Sitting with Jordan near the hastily constructed stage, I was awed by the crowd. Frat boys, dopers, computer geeks, Young Republicans, militant activists; they had all come to see Eddie. In the back of my mind, I knew they had all heard about Jeremy Delle and didn’t have the slightest idea who he was.
And neither did I.
My thoughts were interrupted by the opening act, the Butthole Surfers. As one of the greatest Texas bands ever played, a small mosh pit formed at the base of the stage. However, most of the crowd watched in respectful boredom as the Surfers set their drums on fire and an old episode of Charlie’s Angels played on a screen behind the stage. As the Surfers left the stage, a chant started to ring through the Coliseum.
“WE WANT EDDIE! WE WANT EDDIE!”
NO! NO! NO!
“WE WANT EDDIE! WE WANT EDDIE!”
“WE WANT EDDIE!”
When Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam did step onto the stage, the roar from the crowd crashed down like a wave of adulation. Eddie responded by giving us the finger. As he tore into the first song, half the audience jumped from their seats and went for the stage. The pounding of their feet nearly drowned out Eddie’s musical angst.
After the first song, he stared out at us and, as all Yankees feel the need to do, he said, “Deep in the heart of Texas.” Then, in a voice full of contempt, he asked, “So, how does it feel to be rich?” Someone in the audience shouted back, “You tell us, Eddie!” My response was more to the tune of, “Pretty fucking great!”
Eddie proceeded to inform us that it was Kurt Vonnegut’s birthday. Behind me, a girl with a gleaming nosering asked, “Who?” Still, when Eddie led us in singing Happy Birthday, the girl enthusiastically joined in. Eddie assured us that “Kurt” would be sent a tape of our birthday greetings. I’m sure Mr. Vonnegut appreciated it just as I’m sure Billy Pilgrim remains unstuck in time.
After the relatively cheerful sing along, Eddie’s face reverted to its usual look of loathing and he started to spastically pace the stage as the rest of the band started into the musical intro of – could it be? Yes! Yes, it was! JEREMY! The crowd cheered at the familiar chords as Eddie told us how clearly he could remember picking on the boy and he had seemed to be only a harmless little shit until Jeremy spoke in class that day. The shaky angst of his voice may have been stolen from Teenage Wasteland and his shaky movements were little more than Joe Cocker with better hair but Eddie Vedder did have a presence. That night, on our stage, he was the most charismatic rip-off artist in the world. On that stage, Eddie Vedder, Seattle Rock God, became every disenchanted young Texan.
In the mosh pit, greedy hands were holding aloft a young woman. She had long blonde hair and was wearing blue jeans and white tank top. The hands supporting her were groping at her breasts and grabbing her crotch. Strangers were violating her but she didn’t seem to care or even notice. Her face was enraptured with Eddie and her arms reached out to him in a desperate invitation. Eddie stood on stage, oblivious to her, his body shaking with theatrical rage as he screamed out that Jeremy had spoken.
As I watched that girl begging for the rock star’s blessing, I realized that Jeremy hadn’t spoken. Jeremy had died. Jeremy walked into a classroom and shot himself without a word. Eddie Vedder was the only one speaking. Eddie Vedder and me.
At that moment, the thing only I could feel was absolute hatred for all three of us. Jeremy had died so I could have a story. Jeremy died so Eddie could give the fingers to his fans. Jeremy, Eddie, and me – the Holy Trinity of Liars.
I was deaf for three days after the concert. To be honest, I got over my hatred once the next song began. When Eddie started to sing that he’d rather be with an animal, I was dancing along with everyone else. However, after the concert, I would never again claim Jeremy’s friendship.
A lot has changed since then. Grunge music ran its course. Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam no longer rule the radio airwaves.
After we finally broke up for the final time, Jordan went to England and married a far better man than me. Julia writes esoteric articles about nude photography. I occasionally run into Sean and Josh in Dallas. We talk about theater but never very long because we’ve run out of stories to tell. Jeremy Delle never comes up.
I live far from UNT. My memories of high school are slowly fading. Even the day Jeremy Delle killed himself isn’t as clear as it once was and I know very soon, this story is the only thing I’ll have to remind me that it happened at all.
A few months after Pearl Jam played UNT, Kurt Cobain proved all us Eddie Vedder fans wrong by finally defeating his upstart rival. Kurt killed himself. How could Eddie top that?
Kurt shot himself in the head, just like Jeremy. Suddenly, everyone had a new martyr. Jeremy was no longer needed. He’s forgotten. His song shows up occasionally on the radio but now its angst has been replaced with nostalgia. He serves as a quaint reminder of a time when we could say the world was evil, we were good, and there was no need to worry about the complexities of reality.
I used to tell myself that I was going to write the true story of Jeremy Wade Delle. I was going to be the one to set Eddie Vedder straight. But the truth of the matter is that I don’t know Jeremy Delle’s story. All I know is that one day, he walked into my old English classroom and shot himself.
The rest is invention.