Tomorrow is our first day back to school after Spring Break. There are a host of memorial activities scheduled for this week & this weekend; I headed back to school today to make some copies and was struck by how just being there reminded me of the overwhelming sadness we faced just two weeks ago.
I’d been struggling to put my finger on exactly why I am so sad about the death of a student who I never taught myself. He was older, and our only interactions had been in the hallways and at the student-teacher dodgeball game. I don’t even teach any students his age. I’ve been struggling to figure out why I wake up crying these days, plagued by nightmares that I take my students off-campus and lose them and have to explain their deaths to their parents. Our principal wrote a beautiful message in this week’s newsletter and one sentence captured – for me – why the loss is so profound:
“As a staff, we’re dedicated to helping kids create for themselves the types of lives they’ve dreamed about, so dealing with the reality of this loss is heartbreaking.”
That’s what it is. This is a profession based on hope. It’s like an implicit deal. “I will love you, care about you, teach you everything I can. You will grow up into someone who makes the world a more beautiful place.” There is something so powerful in teaching subject-verb agreement for the eighth time and hoping this is the time – just this one time – when it will finally “click,” when a student’s History 101 essay freshman year of college will contain the subject-verb agreement you struggled for so long to convey. Other things, too. I try and teach my kids about race and class and gender alongside all the other English-y material. I asked one student to write me a paragraph on what he learned in English class this year (I needed it for an ESL writing sample). His response? “I learned that race and gender affect our lives in ways we don’t even realize. And it’s up to us, the next generation, to fix it. Stories like To Kill a Mockingbird are sad because they show how racist society used to be. It makes me angry to think about how racist society still is, especially against people who look like me. We are the future.”
I teach because I want kids like Brilliant Thinker (the author I quoted above) to grow up and fix things. And when a life is so brutally cut short…completely without warning or preparation or any hope to say a proper goodbye…it just feels so unbearably final. All that promise and potential is just gone. We, as teachers, are faced with the reality that someday our own students might face similarly life-threatening circumstances. That they will not actually get the chance to live the kind of lives they’ve dreamed about. And that just feel so supremely unfair of the universe.
A lot of my eighth graders struggled, when it happened, to understand why (as many adults do, too). They wanted to know lots of things. “How could God do this?” “Why did He have to take someone so nice?” “Why would God do that to his parents?” I had conversation after conversation after conversation and had no real words to say, just tears in my eyes to match the tears in my students, just “God is with us when we die. He doesn’t let us feel scared or alone.” I still struggle to understand how or why such a thing could happen.
But tomorrow is a new day. The sun will rise, and I’ll drive to school, past downtown, til I see countryside and cows and the sun just peeking over the industrial plants. I’ll sit behind a line of trucks waiting to cross the railroad tracks and then pull in and greet my students in the stifling humidity, just like I do every day. I will work for the future – the way all teachers do – and things will roll right along in room 23. my heart beats alongside my students’ as our futures blend together.