I woke up this morning, now in my third year of teaching, and drove to school thinking, “October really isn’t that hard anymore.” I should have known better than to think that. A few hours later, my whole world was turned upside down as I found out that one of my favorite students had passed away sometime that night or early morning. This is the first time in my life I have ever had to deal with someone close to me dying, and I never expected it to be one of my students. I was not ready for this.
They don’t teach you at Institute how to deal with one of your students dying. There’s no PD or ProSat that covers how to tell a class full of kids that one of their peers died suddenly in the night. There is no conference call that prepares you to have half a class full of students burst into tears. There is no MTLD debrief that guides you on the best practices of keeping your sobs in the back of your throat and holding back your tears as you try to lead your classroom through the death of a peer.
There is no preparation for the sudden death of one of your students. It feels like a 100-ton truck just ran you over and stopped right on your heart. When the administrator comes into your room and says, “Last night we had a student die,” no words can truly express how your heart skips a beat, time slows to a crawl and your brain races with who you have seen today and who has yet to make an appearance. As you hear the first name being said, your brain flashes through all the students you’ve taught over the last three years who have that name, thinking about which you have seen today and which you haven’t. The last name is spoken. You connect the dots. Realize you haven’t seen that student since yesterday. Ask if they are in the grade you know they are in. Ask if there’s another kid with the same name at the school. Do anything but accept the fact that the beautiful, tall, lanky girl you saw yesterday smiling and laughing in the hallway is no longer here. Tears instinctually well up in your eyes, but you look out at the stunned faces and realize that you can’t break down because there are too many of them already starting to wail. The pain, agony and grief on their faces makes the news real: your student is dead. Dead. Not sent away to Adair County, not sent to the Trillium Center for treatment, not transferred to the other county school, but dead.
How do you keep teaching when you realize that a whole person who you have loved, led, laughed with, cried with and taught every day is never coming back in your room? You will never give another hug to this student ever again. You will never be able to share their cappuccino or share a joke about the silly boy who never does his homework again. You’ll never hear the words Miss Angle-heart said ever again in quite the same way. You will never see the goofy grin on the round face with the dark eyes filled with smoky makeup. You’ll never see the silly hairstyles or the red highlights or the too low shirts ever again.
Your life has forever been changed by this student, but you were unable to get her to a place of transformational change. Our whole theory of change is predicated on the fact that our students will be alive, will continue on, will grow up and will be able to create their own destiny. That was her name. How can I ever say that word again without thinking of her? Who knew that her destiny was going to be to die on a crisp October morning of her sophomore year of high school? Who knew that it would be an unseasonably warm 86 degrees on the day she left us? I like to think that the strange temperature was her sweet spirit, filling our small, hurting town with her presence. She can no longer control her own destiny, but for those of us who knew her, our lives can continue on in her memory. Her laugh and distinct accent may never be heard again, but they live on in our minds. The memory I will cherish most is her still coming to see me every single morning this year, giving me a tight hug and tell me she loved me, even though I did not have her in class anymore. She may have been growing up and her life may have been changing, but she never forgot about me. She never stopped loving me, even when I was no longer her teacher.
This is the lesson I want to take from her death: never stop loving, and always cherish the people who made an impact on your life. Your life may take you in new directions and you may physically leave the presence of those who you most loved and appreciated, but even so, keep the love you have for them and the lessons you learned from them in your heart. If you’re reading this and there is someone who you have loved or learned from, reach out to them tell them how much you love and appreciate them. You never know if it’s the last opportunity you will have to let them know.
Most of us in TFA moved far away from our homes and our colleges, leaving us in a new community where we’ve developed new relationships with other corps members, staff, placement school staff, community members and most importantly, our students. We get caught up in the day to day demands of being a teacher and sometimes we lose sight of who we are, the people who helped shape us and who we want to be. Preparing for our lessons, teaching them and grading papers makes us feel like we have little time to call home, send a random Facebook message or even sometimes give encouraging words to our students. Those acts of love, kindness and support are what will get us through the hard times and will renew the appreciation we have for the people we have had the privilege of knowing. We never know when it will be too late to say thank you, I love you or I appreciate you one last time. Tell your kids how much you love teaching them. Call your parents and let them know you love them. Facebook your old friends and tell them you’re thinking of them. Email your professors and let them know the impact they made on your life.
I know it’s October, the hardest month in a teacher’s life, so I want to end this post with a quote one of my students wrote today as we reflected on Destiny’s loss. “Sometimes we don’t quite understand. Sometimes the feelings bundle up. Life seems unfair and uncontrollable. It feels far from reach and far from sight. Time seems to have stopped in that single struggle, but alas, keep your head up my child. Life will go on and although your heart is filled with sorrow and despair, you are not alone. Everyone has had a time just like yours and although you might feel like no one understands, there are always people standing right by your side. Do not shut them out, for they are trying to help you through your time of need. Remember that while we might not understand why things happen, we are never alone. As the famous Helen Keller said, “Alone we can do so little; but together we can do so much.” Take this quote and carry it in your heart forever and always.” These words, spoken by a 14-year-old freshman, have given me so much comfort as I grieve for the loss of Destiny. I think they are equally applicable for me going through the loss of a student as they are for others going through a really rough October as a teacher. I remember my first year and all the nights I came home and cried myself to sleep, feeling totally alone and like a complete failure. If that’s where you are, I hope Helen Keller’s quote motivates you to reach out to those whom you love and reconnect. Never stop loving.