One more thing

In the midst of all of this stress today I got some horrible news.

One of my students from last year (and the year before–he was stuck with me for two years in a row) passed away on Friday. The circumstances of his death are not yet certain, but it may have been a suicide, and drugs and/or alcohol were likely involved.

The truth is that this kid struggled intensely in his life. He was in my class nearly every day the first year he was on my roster–but the second year, well, he disappeared pretty much halfway through first semester. His life was crashing in on him. He was one of those kids I never felt like I quite reached–never really knew well, never really convinced him that he deserved to be successful. It always seemed like there were much more significant things going on in his mind/world to care too much about what I asked him to do.

What this leaves for me today is just a pit of sadness in the center of everything. And a connection to times past where I learned about something that they don’t teach you in methods classes in college. During a period of 10 months at the school where I taught about seven years ago, we lost seven students. The first was a student in my fifth hour freshman language arts class. It was a car accident in a highway construction zone. I had no idea how to handle this–how to deal with my own grief along side the grief on the faces of my students as we all noticed the violently empty desk in the middle of our classroom.

We muddled through and began to heal, and just about three weeks later, there was another tragic highway construction zone accident–this time with a car load of five of our students. Two died at the scene. The other three were lucky to have survived. In a school of 800 students, this is a lot of tragedy in three weeks. We were all stunned.

Instead of school for the rest of the school year (it was only about a week or so), my students and I talked about life, ate cookies, went on walks, and played games together. It was therapeutic, and we all needed it. Life curriculum trumped school curriculum.

The next school year we lost a student to a skateboarding/car accident (he was also one of mine), two students (a brother and sister) to a house fire, and another student to a terminal illness.

There is something nearly unbearable about attending a funeral or memorial service for a high school student, one that you can remember so clearly as full of life and possibility, eyes on the future, youth shining from their very souls.

And on Thursday evening, there I will be again, trying to grasp all of this. Death of youth.

This time it’s different in some ways–instead of a sudden, unexpected disappearance of an energetic life force as was the case of my students about seven years back–here we have a possible suicide. I’ve not been through this ground before. How much pain must he have been dealing with in his life? As he was sitting in MY classroom? Did anything I ever asked him to do have any meaning to his life? Is there anything I could have done as his teacher to heal the pain?

I’m not suggesting I feel responsible. I just hope that I was somehow a positive spot in his world. That, in short, is really the best, truest goal I can have as a teacher.

The sadness from the students I lost before still creeps in on me once in a while. It catches me in the quiet moments–not as much as it used to, but it still catches me. This week, though, the sadness for this student’s death now will creep and hover all around, omnipresent, just waiting for my attention to divert from whatever else I might be focused on at the moment so it can swallow my thoughts whole.

I’ll let it. The grief needs acknowledgment.

And it’s how I will be able to honor this student–by letting his passing sink in, by working to remember what I can about him, by hoping that he has finally reached some peace.

M. Shelley

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