I mentioned in “A Letter to My Lost Student” how appropriate – really fateful – the posting of “Throwback Thursday: Letters to My First Students” was in light of what happened. I was originally going to write about how middle school-aged kids were so consciously and unconsciously cruel to one another and how it’s amazing how so many kids survive middle school.
Then, Thornton-Donovan School suffered a nearly unbearable tragedy on December 11 when one of our former students who was still very much connected to the school took her own life. Consequently, I pushed that piece of childish cruelty, for this piece had to be written first.
For years I’ve had students whose maturation and actions and accomplishments have filled my heart with pride. This is specifically the reason why I have remained at Thornton-Donovan School; this strange place has granted me the opportunity to impart above-grade-level knowledge and strategies on precocious middle schoolers to prepare them for high school. Whether they are actually granted the opportunity to apply their skills in high school is a discussion for after I leave Thornton-Donovan.
I still hear that my writing strategies and models continue to enable my former students, now in college, to express their points clearly, structure their arguments coherently, and bring home the grades. I heard it from the mother of my lost student whom I mentioned in “A Letter to My Lost Student.” One of my colleagues, she is someone who I truly respect and care for, someone who has always had time to talk through a student issue with me or offer me advice when I struggled to connect to a learning disabled student. Which is saying something. Because I do not respect everyone (although I usually show outward respect).
I hurt for this mother so much now, not because I regret not being able to help her daughter – I don’t believe anyone could have when one makes the decision she did and I don’t think it’s fair or realistic to hold oneself accountable for the decision of another – but because her family will always carry the burden of the one who is missing, the one who the next generation will ask about in pictures, no matter how many years go by and how much support one has. I still feel that same sensation whenever I’m in my aunt and uncle’s house and I come across pictures of their son, my beloved cousin Jeffrey, whom my family lost five years ago. We – or at least I – still have not recovered entirely as it always feels as if someone is missing. Because he is.
The answer here is a simple one on paper. Just as so many complex ones are. Keep the memories of our loved ones alive through the stories we tell and the pictures we show and feelings we recall in times of longing and sadness. Yet, with children it’s harder. One cannot even begin to imagine how the loss of a 15-year-old kid – how old my former student was – hurts your heart in ways that chronological death will never. There’s something illogical about kids dying, for it violates the natural order. It’s just not supposed to happen. And I’ve never lost one of my students before.
I pride myself as an educator on being able to protect children. That is part of my job, in an academic, emotional, and physical sense – one I have never taken lightly even if their parents or other teachers do. As I’ve always contended, I’m not like other people. And I’m quite proud of not being a part of the herd.
Obviously, there are the five stages of grief one goes through in times of tragedy, according to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance – but I’m not sure these are anything more than educated guesses based on tests that can never truly be applied to all humans. Simply put, there are no absolutes.
Everyone thinks differently and deals with tragedy in his/her own way. Some become despondent and hide themselves and the memories of their loved one lost. Some hit the bottle and fly. A few get high. Some speak to a counselor or someone close to them. Many put up the facade of strength when they’re crumbling inside. Others band together and build each other back up.
And I think that’s the answer. Support. Not just at the wake or the funeral. But after. When the house is quiet. And there are no words of condolence left. I saw that on Monday when I witnessed students past and present come together to remember their fallen classmate, taking the initiative to speak on her behalf, to put together a memory book with the recollections of students and teachers, and to celebrate her life, not her death. In such a time of sorrow, I felt an immense pride for my students.
While they might have lost their innocence and they may never be able to look at the world the same way again, they recognized the magnitude of the situation and rose together. For they saw what I saw the night of my cousin’s wake; that is, they are now charged with protecting one another and, of paramount importance, they are the protectors of the memories of their lost friend.
And they will eventually recover.
And they will thrive.
If you or anyone you know is contemplating taking his/her own life, please contact the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.