Teachers’ Hearts: On the Loss of Students

50264375_366084627277340_1670165120438763520_nNovember 22, 2016

Before they left for Thanksgiving Break, my eighty-two tenth graders and I made a promise to one another–we would remain safe, make wise decisions, and return alive on the Monday after Thanksgiving.

The understanding is established on the first day of school: My students are told an unusual rule: They are not allowed to die.

I tell them that I cannot be the teacher who bravely greets her devastated class, despite her own irreparable, sorrowing heart, who is somehow expected to guide students who are even more broken.

Expected to say words when there are none.

Greeted by an empty desk–then stoically watching as it is covered by construction-paper cards, grocery-store flowers, and beloved stuffed animals.

Tasked with cleaning out a desk or a locker, returning half-read library books and thumbing through composition books full of doodles and daydreams. Taking one last smell of a sweater before packing up a backpack, grateful that the classroom cameras can’t record her sobs.

Forced to endure visitation at a funeral home full of gawkers and grievers. To be kind and say the right thing to so many when so much is so drastically wrong. When a piece of her own world is gone.

The teacher-student relationship is precious. Teachers don’t often talk about it because we fear that we may misspeak or be misunderstood and pilloried when we are people who know that what we do is holy.

We work in rooms full of shared life–rooms where there is magic, where there is community, and where there is love.

The American public doesn’t want to talk about, much less acknowledge, this love, preferring instead to attempt to recast the teacher-student relationship into a business relationship, efficient and cold, but one with less risk of lawsuits.

Despite this, teachers continue to love. It is, perhaps, what we do best.

As the November bus crash in Chattanooga reverberated throughout the nation, three million educators mourned with the teachers of the five dead students. Imagined the agony. Lost sleep as they role-played, wondering how they themselves would cope.

I had not cried about the bus crash until I read, “Late Monday night [the night of the crash] teachers from across the district gathered at Woodmore Elementary School painting a colorful mural of encouragement and support.”

I pictured them–men and women lost in grief for children who were not theirs, yet very much theirs. Teachers anguished and wondering, wanting to do and to heal, to start immediately stitching up the unfathomable, unexpected wound.

And then thinking beauty. Thinking love. Thinking unity.

Driving to Woodmore in the dark night to create. To encourage.  For their children, who would need so much reassurance.

I imagined these teachers drinking coffee and crying into Kleenex as they painted, while swapping stories about Zoie, Cordayja, Zyanna, Zyaira, and D’Myunn. (Keonte would later die of his injuries.) Maybe they shared stories of how they had worked on Thanksgiving art earlier in the day. Written poems about the Pilgrims. Talked about their family traditions.

I could hear them saying, “The last time I saw her, Zoie . . .” and I hear the laughter. I imagine Cordayja’s teacher talking about her jangling bracelets; Zyanna’s teacher talking about her writing, and Zyaira’s about her helpful attitude. I picture them talking of  D’Myunn, how he was the heart of the class, a joy to teach.

I saw them painting into the early morning hours. I imagined them there in that building, laughing and crying, renewing their hearts so they could begin to restore their students’.

I saw them.

January 16, 2017

I wrote that beginning of a blog entry on November 22, 2016, then filed it away, dissatisfied. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t enough. It went nowhere.

Now, in January on Martin Luther King Day, I am alone in my classroom listening to Kid Rock and making art because, like the teachers at Woodmere, I have lost a favorite student, Hannah. Like them, I am wholly brokenhearted, yet tomorrow, I must face children because that’s what teachers do. 

One of the most important things we do is face children when worlds are falling apart. We look into their eyes, touch their cheeks. We say, “Your grandma may have died, but it is wonderful that you got to love her this long.” “Your father may not care about you, but that is his loss because you, child, are incredible.” We escort them through losses, striding alongside them on our sometimes-weary legs.

Teachers can’t quit marching. They can’t give up. They can’t say, “This is too much. I am staying in bed.” Every day their students bring their jumbles of sorrow and joy, and teachers try, amid algorithms and adverbs, to also teach students that they are strong, that they will endure, and that they will survive. We delight in the joys–the day that the kids get their letterman jackets, the senior march at Prom, and, of course, the jubilance of graduation. These are such sweet days, and we bear close witness.

But there are other days when it is necessary to wade willingly into sorrow, our arms outstretched, holding twenty-eight pairs of hands as our students trail along behind.

Tomorrow, we will begin the wade.50407348_1014545712061835_3352859171581067264_n

January 17, 2019

It has been two years. Two years since the night I showed up wordless at Hannah’s home, having never before met her mother and stepfather, apologizing because I knew I could not stay away. Two years since I stood in their starlit yard with my grieving students, listening to their cries. 

I have lost two more former students since then–their names in a sad list on a small sheet of paper on my desk at work.  I see it every day. I want to remember them.

They were in my classroom–I saw their smiling faces when they understood, finally, where that stupid comma needed to go. I heard their stories about the bus rides with the band. I read their bad poetry, their angsty journals, their narratives of beach trips.

That they are gone is incomprehensible.

In the movie Cry, the Beloved Country, Jarvis–having just been told by a police officer that his only son was dead–staggers backward, props himself on his truck, and says, his eyes blank, “Dead . . .  Shot dead?”

Every time we watch it in my classroom, I rewind the scene. I make my students look at actor Conrad Harris’s eyebrows, how he lifts them, wordlessly conveying the shock. They watch his hand over his face, his open mouth, his empty eyes, his collapse onto the bumper of the truck. His collapse. 

I tell my students that sons matter that much. That they, too, as sons and daughters, matter that much.

Today, in leadership class, we began preparing next month’s bulletin boards. Volunteers were heading to the library to cut out hearts on the Ellison machine–the idea was that each of our 1,000+  students could then get one heart and write down something they love about our school. 

As I turned to get the pink paper from the cabinet, it hit me: just before she died, Hannah, too, had cut out hearts in anticipation of a February bulletin board–she had bounded into the room, her hands full of hearts, yammering away about how she cut out extras for her boyfriend, how she was going to put them in his truck. How she had saved the scraps because she knew me, and I saved everything, so I would use them for something. She had stuffed them in a cubby hole where I found them on that MLK weekend after her death, when I carefully hung them, not on the bulletin board, but on my classroom door in tribute to her, the student who made me so much better.

Tears filled my eyes as I got the pink paper, and I explained that I was thinking of Hannah and her hearts and all that yammering. I told the kids, “At least you know I love you.”

They grinned, heading off to cut out hearts like Hannah had, taking a piece of my heart with them.

Just like she did.

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