No teacher should ever have to experience the death of a student. . .
In my life’s work of teaching, I have experienced it, though,— four times.
In my first year of teaching, Dawn was my classroom and after-school helper. She and I both benefited from the relationship. We spent many afternoons together, after the rest of the students had left for the day—she, cleaning the chalk boards and straightening the room, me, grading the latest set of social studies tests and English journals. Sometimes we’d chat, sometimes we’d enjoy a companionable silence. I’d drive her home afterwards. You could do things like that back then.
I married the next year and moved far away from that Connecticut town. One day my mother called me on the phone and reported that Dawn’s body had been found in a field, halfway between school and home. Murdered.
Robin entered my life at an exclusive private school in Tennessee. She loved to write, especially poetry, and she wrote beautifully. Robin was small and frail, suffering from cystic fibrosis. We all knew that her life, even at age 13, had a finite end. It came the second year I knew her. Her poetry lived on.
Bree didn’t begin school that year with the rest of her 7th grade classmates. She was in New York City, being treated for the cancer that had first been diagnosed when she was in second grade. A valiant fighter, she attended school that year from time to time (maybe 8 or 10 days in all), whenever her health and treatments allowed. She always asked what work she had missed, and how she could make it up. I always told her.
One of my colleagues said he didn’t want to get to really know her, as death seemed inevitable, and might come soon, and that would be too hard to take.
We all grieve, and prepare for grief, in different ways.
For me, on the few days she did attend school, I bent down and looked fully into her sparkling brown eyes. I wanted her to be someone I’d never forget–that, in part, would be the measure of her young life–my knowing her, my remembering her.
Bree didn’t die that year. She fought the cancer valiantly for two more years. In her short life, she inspired her teachers and her peers.
Watching TV one morning, I heard a name, a name unusual enough that I thought it HAD to be one of my former students. He’d been in an altercation outside a restaurant, called to the scene by his girlfriend, who felt she was being harassed by another patron. Soon his high school graduation picture flashed on the screen, the handsome, grown-up version of the little second grader I’d loved, confirmed. It was Wes. Stabbed to death at 18.
A great kid, a star athlete, a good student, a kind person –that’s what the reporters were saying. I was thinking — a wonderful little guy with great style, especially for a 7 year old, beaming smile, beautiful blue eyes, eager to learn all there was to learn, a beloved only child, adored by his parents.
I stood in line for three hours to pay my respects. There were that many people there to honor him. When I reached his parents, I thought I’d need to introduce myself. To my surprise, his mom reached out and hugged me, saying, “Wes always loved you.”
I responded, “I always loved Wes.”
That’s the way it is…they take away a piece of our hearts.