I met my one hundred current students only three weeks after my husband’s death. I knew nothing about them–they were my January fresh crop–and, somehow, at the lowest point of my life, I was supposed to craft relationships with these teenagers–and teach them. Thirty-nine days ago, that seemed impossible.
My class orientation PowerPoint takes two days. It covers everything I believe kids need to know about the realities of being high school students and everything they need to know about me. Former students pop up in videos to say, “Mrs. G is bad with names. My name is Carlton, but she calls me Clarence . . . My name is Jacob, but Mrs. G calls me Joseph.” “If you come into this classroom with a bruise, Mrs. G is going to report it, no cap.” “If Mrs. G says she is coming to your house, she’s going to pull up.” I tell them about my migraine triggers. I tell them about the former students whom I’ve helped get counseling, glasses, food. I tell them stories of others like them–kids with dead parents, single parents, sick parents, drunk parents. I talk and talk and talk, laying the foundation: I’m approachable. I’m an ally. You’re safe–and you’re dang sure going to behave.
This year, I did that. I wasn’t zingy, my monotone voice even flatter than usual, but I told them: I am here for you. This is your space.
And, since my husband taught right down the hall from me–and some of the kids had been his students as well–since they truly understood how astounding it was to think, “Mr. G walked out of this building on September 23rd, and he never came back,” and they could also feel the weight of that, they somehow decided very quickly that they were also there for me.
They made space for me. And my grief.
Three weeks into the semester, when I faced my husband’s birthday, one of the girls (who is sure to be a hospital manager someday) assured me, “We are going to take care of you this week.” The next day, a basket of goodies was on my desk. Cashews, shortbread, a journal, and a soft blanket. That day, together, we ate Greg’s favorite snack –Little Debbie honey buns and chocolate milk –while we watched Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet.” We listened together as the friar cautioned the young lovers to “love moderately,/long love doth so.” We watched Romeo try to do everything right, and then we watched him die. We talked about universal themes and universal truths, the transcending of time, place, and culture. How no one wants to die, and it is so sad when they do.
Of course, we have carved out spaces for laughter. We eat. Chips and Gatorade on some students’ birthdays. Bananas and bottled water almost every day. Chupa Chups and atomic fireballs. After lunch, while some of the kids go to the bathroom, the rest of us watch football montages in amazement. The kids agree: when we watch spectacular athletes, there is no room for the pandemic. We forget, for a minute, that five to seven kids are out of almost every class on any given day. We focus just on the athlete and the ball. There is just the goal line. There is nothing else.
Yesterday, on Valentine’s Day–a day I had once awoken to a bowl full of paper hearts upon which Greg had written things he loved about me–I found my school mailbox full of index cards upon which students had written things like, “You have changed my life for the better” and “Thank you for being an amazing teacher even on the bad days.” They gave me dishcloths covered in smiling kittens. They gave me Valentines. One boy gave me a Ziploc bag of chocolates, and I joked about their origin story. (I was right: They were a regift. We shared a laugh.)
But my favorite thing, truly, was a slightly battered plain piece of notebook paper upon which twenty-five or thirty kids had written a few words each. Honestly, I think it’s the most poignant gift I’ve ever gotten at work–because, on the surface, it was nothing special. No bright markers. No curly lettering. No carefully drawn flowers. Just dozens of teenagers reassuring a teacher: We see you. You matter.
Being seen is so important.
Being reminded of your worth is perhaps even more so.
In the weeks immediately following my father’s death, people surrounded me. They propped me up. They watched me eat. They made me laugh.
And then, everything was quiet.
I was alone with grief.
And during that time, in those latter, lonely days of solitary heartbreak, I received two letters. Long letters, real letters–the kind everyone over age fifty once wrote after lunch. One letter was from a friend of my brother’s who later became a friend of mine. The other was from the adult daughter of one of my father’s friends. I would not recognize her by face or by name, but she took paper and pen and wrote of my father’s importance and the depth of my loss. And, in allowing me to see her grief, she lessened mine.
In Greg’s final days, his students sent him index cards with words of comfort. I read them to him as he lay with his cats in his hospital bed in our bedroom. He couldn’t talk, and I don’t know that he could see, but he knew the cards were from his students and that they were for him.
He held one for a long time.
He did not want to let it go.