Teaching from the heart: A letter and eulogy for one of my students.

When we teach from the heart, we run the risk of having them broken from time to time. Even as I cry, I know that loving and parental relationships with my students are worth that risk.

 

My dear child,

It’s been three weeks since you left us. Tomorrow will mark three weeks since I found out. It was lunch time and I was in the counseling office, wanting to talk about something I can’t remember when I was told.

I felt like I had been punched in the guts. Sinking into a chair, I began to sob for you. The counselors took me into an office and closed the door. The rest of the students didn’t know yet, and the plan was to tell everyone during 4th block. That was over an hour away. My body shook, tears and snot flowed freely, it was not a Hollywood-style cry.

I had to pull myself together. I had to go back to my class and teach like nothing was wrong; like my heart was still whole. I dried my eyes and wiped my face. Numb, I told my colleagues, “I’ve got this. I’ll be OK.”

It was the truth. You see, I’ve got a lot of experience in dealing with the death of a student, sadly, too much.

During 3rd Block, I was a pro. I smiled, I joked, I taught like nothing was wrong. I faked my way through the ninety minutes and got ready for the next nightmare.

Because you were a part of our AVID program, you had been in my classroom every day for nearly two years. Worse still, you and the nineteen other AVID seniors had been together all four years of high school. We were about to get them all together and break the tragic news.

There I stood, in the library, surrounded by counselors and all of the AVID teachers, watching our Principal tell your friends, your family, what had happened. Some of your friends were stunned, staring out, but not seeing. One began to wail, and my heart broke all over again.

We all loved you so much. We still do.

These past three weeks have been a roller coaster ride, dear child. On that first Friday, we cried and we held each other. We wrote letters to you and to your Mom. We shared our favorite memories of you.

For me, since then, there are days when I look at your empty desk and hurt all over again. Sometimes, it feels like you’ve always been gone. Other times, it feels like you’re just home sick and that we’ll see your bright smile tomorrow.

This past Sunday was your memorial. You would have loved it. We buried you in the memorial garden at the music festival you loved so much. The dance-tent was filled with your family. Some of us from school, others from the festival. Many of us had never met. Our only connection to each other was you. For a few hours, you brought us all together. I think you would have loved that.

Your Mom put your ashes into a container that also holds the seeds of a tree. Eventually, we’ll all be able to see you there, at the festival, offering shade and comfort to anyone who needs to spend a little time under your branches. I think you would have loved that, too.

Three weeks ago, the night I found out that you were gone, I sat alone at my kitchen table and started making a list. Yes, sweet child, I remember all of their names. Sunday marked the 29th funeral I’ve attended for my students over the 23 years I’ve been a teacher. I do this every year, and it never gets easier.

I’ve told colleagues, and I mentioned it on Sunday, like most teachers, I love all of my students. With you, it feels like it hurts even worse than usual. I think it’s part of the nature of AVID. Not only did we spend a lot of time together, that time was different than a typical classroom. I was so proud of you as we worked on your personal statement; when those college acceptance letters started rolling in; and, when we worked on funding your dream of university and psychology.

When we lose a student, when we lose a friend, when we lose a family member, it breaks our hearts. It’s times like these, when we realize that sometimes there is pain that comes with caring about one another.

For me, I think that holding onto this broken heart is a blessing. I just don’t know how to do my job without loving you and all of my kids. Honestly, I wouldn’t want to do my job any other way.

So, dear child, why am I writing you this letter, and why am I sharing it with teachers who are far away and read my blog? This year, you had a student teacher in charge of one of your classes. For her, this was the first time she’s lost a student. You were her Ryan.

I’m sharing this letter for her and for all of the other teachers who have yet to experience this heartbreak, or who, like me, have experienced it far too often. I want them to know that it’s worth it. I want them to know that it’s okay to love their kids. I want them to know that the relationships we build together as we study and learn are worth these occasional heartbreaks.

For me, those relationships are what makes teaching my calling and not just my job.

Today, I looked at the note you wrote on the graffiti wall in my classroom. You wrote, “You’ve encouraged me beyond what you realize. You’ve been the parent I’ve never had and for that I’ll always have a place for you in my heart.”

Dear child, you’ll always have a place in my heart, too.

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  • Raven Coit

    I don’t know what to say,

    I don't know what to say, except YES. All of what you said is in my heart, also, though for other dear children.  Rest in peace, dear child, Mr. Orphal will keep you in his heart for always. Thank you, Dave.

    • DaveOrphal

      Thank you

      Dear Raven,

      Thank you for being a colleague and friend. It feels so good to know so many wonderful teachers who really understand what I’m saying when I say, “I love all of my kids.” I don’t mean to judge or throw shade at my colleageus who keep an emotional wall between themselves and “the” students. I know several colleagues who do this and are wonderful teachers. I just mean that I wouldn’t know how to do that and still be good at this. 

      More importantly, thank you for hurting with me right now. You don’t know my kid, but you do. You’ve got lots in your classes right now, too. I really meant what I said in the letter, the pain is easier to hold because you’re holding it with me.

      I love you, my friend

    • Missy

      Death of a student

      You expressed what my heart feels for all of the students I've lost. They all hurt, but none more than my Landon. It's been almost ten years and my heart still aches. My own child adored him but I couldn't bring myself to tell him and it was easy not to as Landon had graduated and we only saw him on holidays. Just this past Sunday Landon's grandmother was at church and when I saw her, it was like it happened yesterday. There is nothing that can prepare one for losing a student. 

      • DaveOrphal

        Missy

        My heart goes out to you, your son, and Landon’s family. Your words are true for me too. Ryan passed away 23 years ago. He was my first and he passed during my first year teaching. It still hurts when I think about him and his infectous laugh. Over the year, the feelings are more sweet than sad, but the sad is still there. 

        • Missy

          Losing students

           

          Thank you for your soothing comment. I know it sounds awful that I didn't tell my son at first, but I knew the first question he would ask is, "How?"  I couldn't lie to my son but the truth was something a six year old didn't need to know about one of his heroes.  As his freshman English teacher, I was trusted with his deepest thoughts that he wrote in his journal. My precious Landon was so hurt and broken by his father's complete absence in his life that he turned to drugs to cover the pain. After he graduated, his drug use only got worse.  In a strange twist of fate I actually saw him on the day he died. He was so messed up. The "friends" who were with him told me he'd taken 40 klonopin but not to worry because he did that all the time. That was at noon that day. How I wish I'd put him in my car and driven him to the hospital. Through slurred words he tried to assure me that he was getting his life together as he'd be headed to begin Army boot camp the following week. He did not survive his "last blowout". If I could only go back to that day!  

          Thank you for the outlet to share this. It's usually something I keep buried deep down and writing it out lessens the heaviness I feel. 

          • DaveOrphal

            Forgiveness

            Dear Missy,

            I can hear the catch in your voice and see the tears in your eyes as you write your comments on this post. I’m grateful that my story has given you an opportunity to share about what seems like such painful memories for you.

            Like you, I’ve had moments in my life that are full of “What if…” and “Why didn’t I…” 

            I honestly don’t know if it is my place to say this, so if it is not, please forgive me.

            A very wise woman in my life once told me, “Forgiveness is the act of letting go forever the possibility of a better past.” As I read your words, I wonder if you have forgiven yourself around Landon’s death. 

            When my friend explained her definition of forgiveness to me, it helped, but not enough. I could still hear the echo’s of the “What if..” in my head. “That’s OK, David,” she told me, “I’ll hold onto the forgiveness for you until you’re ready to take it for yourself.”

            Missy, I hope sharing this experience brings you some comfort. I hope, even though we don’t know each other, that you will allow me to hold forgiveness and compassion for you around Landon’s death until you’re ready to take it for yourself.

             

  • DarylPauling

    Being a parent for my students

    Dave,

    My resolve to work and help others is immense. Your letter touched me in so many ways because we often forget that teachers are on the front line for the most difficult situations. I am proud to be a teacher that promotes caring, sharing and disciplining my students. I want the best for them like I would for my own children. The most important thing out of this post that I want my colleagues to know is, I would go to bat for my kids in a heart beat. 

    Life has a funny way of reminding us about the human element and why it’s so important to work diligently in the classroom environment. Our schools are a safe haven for students. When you take away that element, where are they suppose to go? I wish more teachers would take up the mantle like you and I. If we want to be more engaged, then we have to take on difficult roles that many in society can’t handle or choose not to. 

    I will use my favorite quote to sum up my feelings on being a teacher: Many are called, few answer. Amen.

    • DaveOrphal

      Thank you

      Thank you, Daryl for your mention of the human element. Whenever someone asks, “What do you teach?” I answer, “Children,” with a smile. I know the answer they were really looking for, but I want to remind them, and myself, that teaching is a human and relationship focused calling. 

  • DeneenKozielski

    Our grief is real

    In my 15 years of teaching, I have “only” lost three students and never during the time they were in my classroom. Despite this, it was a crushing blow and I grieved hard. I agree, they are our kids. It’s hard to compare our grief, though, to the pain the family is enduring. But it’s not trivial either, so we must take time to acknowledge that. We spend more time with many of our students than their own parents do, and it is our job to help them dream of their futures and set goals and talk about how great their lives will be once they move past that milestone of graduation. Then to have that flre extinguished too soon without that promise being fulfilled…I can’t wrap my head around it. This is one area that I have never been able to make sense of, ever.

    The best we can do is focus on the celebration of the life they had, keep their memories close, and appreciate the gift that we were blessed with them even for such a short time. 

    Sending you (((hugs))) during this difficult time.

    • DaveOrphal

      Agreed!

      Deneen

      I think you hit the right balance between honoring our pain and grief at the death of a student and the grief that their family feels. I never, ever, ever want to compare my grief to my student’s family. I just want them to know that I loved their child, too, and that I am carring some of the burdan of grief alongside them.

  • Christine Lyles

    It still hurts

    I have been teaching almost 30 years — and, yes, I have had students (as adults) that passed away due to illness, accidents, etc. Those were hard.  But, this was the first year that I lost a student that was currently in my class.  I got the phone call (this was in October)  from the principal that night at home.  I cried and I kept telling him that his can't be true.  The next school day was just plain gut-wrenching.  I cried pretty much all day.  My students hugged me and cried — that wailing cry that teenagers do when they have just lost it.  When the principal came by, I just lost it.  I kept saying over and over that he was just a little boy and this can't be happening.  He wanted me to go home — but I couldn't.  I couldn't leave my other students with no one to talk to, no one to hang on to, no one to sit with them and cry together.  I helped them write letters to the family, make posters with his picture for other students to sign and leave messages.   It was a horrible, horrible day. Just sitting here writing this brings back every hurt, every pain, every memory.  

    I don't think that most parents realize how attached we become to our students.  They truly are  "our kids", even if we only teach them for one year.  It is now the end of May — I still look at that desk and see his face.  Rest in Peace, sweet Terry.

     

    • DaveOrphal

      Thank you for sharing your grief.

      I’m crying for you right now, Christine. I’m crying for Terry. 

      Ay my student’s memorial, I said this, “Look around you right now. The people you see here understand what you are going through, because they are going through it, too. They know how you feel, because they are feeling it, too. The burden of our grief is lighter, because we are all holding it together.”

      Thank you for sharing your grief. Knowing how deeply you understand how I grieve for my student helps. I hope it helps you to know that I’m carrying some of the grief for Terry.

  • Christine Lyles

    It still hurts

    I have been teaching almost 30 years — and, yes, I have had students (as adults) that passed away due to illness, accidents, etc. Those were hard.  But, this was the first year that I lost a student that was currently in my class.  I got the phone call (this was in October)  from the principal that night at home.  I cried and I kept telling him that his can't be true.  The next school day was just plain gut-wrenching.  I cried pretty much all day.  My students hugged me and cried — that wailing cry that teenagers do when they have just lost it.  When the principal came by, I just lost it.  I kept saying over and over that he was just a little boy and this can't be happening.  He wanted me to go home — but I couldn't.  I couldn't leave my other students with no one to talk to, no one to hang on to, no one to sit with them and cry together.  I helped them write letters to the family, make posters with his picture for other students to sign and leave messages.   It was a horrible, horrible day. Just sitting here writing this brings back every hurt, every pain, every memory.  

    I don't think that most parents realize how attached we become to our students.  They truly are  "our kids", even if we only teach them for one year.  It is now the end of May — I still look at that desk and see his face.  Rest in Peace, sweet Terry.

     

  • Robin

    I have been to way too many

    I have been to way too many funerals of students & former students, some still children (Jaime, Austin, Collin, Max, Kyle), some young adults (Andrew, Shannon, Elaine, Julian). All hurt & break my heart. Thank you for sharing your grief. Lifting you up.

    • DaveOrphal

      Thank you, Robin

      I am lifting you up as well, along with Jamie, Austin, Collin, Max, Kyle, Andrew, Shannon, Elaine, Julian, and thier families.

  • Amy

    Special Education

    Your description of the pain of losing a student is so incredibly accurate.  I lost a student almost 14 years ago, and I still feel the pain today.  So many times I wonder what he would be doing today.  I poured my heart and soul into this lost teenager who everyone warned me about. I never listen to what others say, and found that while troubled, TJ had a heart of gold that had been broken one too many times.  That year, I asked permission from administration to ask TJ to join my family for Thanksgiving.  That tradition carried on for 4 years until he decided to join the military. TJ would call regularly. He once told me that despite my continuous efforts to tell him how smart he was, for the first time in his life he finally believed me. Unfortunately, after his station was changed, he found himself sad, lonely and depressed. He moved back home and went to live with family in an undesirable neighborhood.  We wanted him to come live with us, but we had a newborn baby and it just wasn't an ideal time.  I kick myself to this day, because TJ died alone in a hotel room from a drug overdose.  At his funeral, my husband and I were the only ones who spoke.  He touched our hearts and we will never forget him.

     

    These students don't realize the impact they have on our lives as well.  We see things in them they are unable to see for themselves. Our perspective is a great gift to them. May teachers always continue to believe in their students, despite behaviors and choices that aren't always favorable.  

    • DaveOrphal

      Relationships

      It is wonderful to hear your story and the stories of other teachers who build loving, professional relationships with their students. Even though your story, and others, include heartbreak, they are still beautiful.

      There is just something magical and precious about teachers who see great things in their students that the children don’t see in themselves. It’s even more magical and precious when our kids finally see in themselves what we’ve seen all along. 

  • Sharon Wright

    Beautiful

    Just beautiful, Dave. Tears here in AL. Thank you for sharing this with us.

    • DaveOrphal

      Thank you, Sharon

      Thank you for crying for my student, her family, and me. 

      For me, the load is lighter, knowing that you are shouldering some of it. 

  • Laura Hinckley

    Thank you!

    Your letter touched me and made me proud their are teachers like you in this world. I am sorry for your loss but in that loss you taught appreciation for life. That makes me grateful!

    Laura Hinckley

    http://www.lauraslittlehousetips.com

    • DaveOrphal

      Thank you, Laura

      I’m glad that the letter touched you. I hope you can see from the comments here and where the post has been shared on social media that I am just one of thousands and thousands of teachers who love their students. 

  • Katie

    Death of a student

     

    You have summed up my experience perfectly. I have stood and weeped at the grave of too many students.

    From suicide, overdose, cancer and gun violence ….

    I can name them all and the impact they had in my life .                 To me it's the hardest part of the job.

     

     

     

     

    • DaveOrphal

      My heart breaks for you

      Dear Katie,

      I am so sorry that you understand far, far too well what I’m going though this past month. When you talk about too many students, suicide, gun violence, and overdose, you are telling my story as well as yours. 

      Grieving for a child is by far the worst part of our job. 

  • Lisa Johnson

    Death of a student

    I beat myself up after the tragic death of one of my past students.  If I had only done more, given more, had more patience, more strategies, maybe I could have influenced or reached him?  Maybe I could have helped him see a future that he couldn't imagine for himself?  I don't know the answers and cannot shake sadness.  

    • DaveOrphal

      Forgiveness

      Dear Lisa,

      My heart breaks for you and your student. I’m sorry for your loss and I’m sorry that you still are struggling to forgive yourself around his death. Above you in these comments, Missy is struggling in what seems like a similar way. 

      In a similar way, I struggled with the death of my first wife. I had a lot of guilt; a lot of “What If..” I thought of a lot of things that I “should” have done and things I wished I had done differently. 

      Like I told Missy, A very wise woman in my life once told me, “Forgiveness is the act of letting go forever the possibility of a better past.” When my friend explained her definition of forgiveness to me, it helped, but not enough. I could still hear the echo’s of the “What if..” in my head. “That’s OK, David,” she told me, “I’ll hold onto the forgiveness for you until you’re ready to take it for yourself.”

      Lisa, if it is OK with you, I would like to offer to hold the forgiveness for you, as I’ve done with Missy. 

      My prayer for you is that you can find comfort in these words.

  • mortenvermund

    Organized content is the best

    Organized content is the best way to display or post an article, thank you for making it easy to digest your post. 

     

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  • Criseldaf7

    My Breaks For You

    I’m not a teacher but I do have kids in 6th and 11th grades.  Today, my 11th grader lost a fellow classmate.  The child was in soccer, as well.  He was loved by everyone.  My heart is aching for his teachers right now.  This cannot possibly be something we can fathom going through.  You have such high hopes for these kiddos and open your heart to them.  Even though we can understand the pain of losing someone, it’s a whole other set of emotions you must experience.  The kids at my son’s school haven’t been told yet.  We were emailed a few hours ago to prepare us for what’s coming.  To prepare us for the questions our kids may have.  Although there’s no amount of preparing that will suffice.  They will be told within the next hour.  🙁  My heart is breaking…  Be blessed and thank you for investing your heart in our kids.