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.