Tuesday, January 5, 2016

When a Student Dies

I go to too many funerals. When I was in my twenties, weddings and baby showers dominated my life. Now that I’m nearly 50, I’m saying goodbye to older faces a little more frequently than I am saying hello to new ones. This is a fact of life as we age, and I hate it.

I have attended too many funerals for my students. My first students are now only in their early 30s, so every student death over the past 16 years is wrong and horrible and crushing and unfair. Most have died in car accidents, some as the result of health ailments, some because of drug or alcohol addiction, and a very few have intentionally taken their own lives.

The first time a student in my class died, I was a second-year teacher. I remember that morning in excruciating detail. I was in the main office before school to make copies, and I overheard an administrator on the telephone with the police or the hospital or somebody. The local paper had printed a photo of a smashed-up car from an accident the night before but had not printed the names of the victims. Our assistant principal recognized the car and started making phone calls. As he was writing down what the people on the other line were telling him, I heard him clarifying, “Minesh is dead, and Jay is on life support?”

Jay and Minesh were cousins. I did not know Jay, but his little sister had been in my class. She was mine. We had only one Minesh in our school. Minesh, who never stopped smiling, ever, was mine. I felt my knees buckle under me, and I grabbed the secretary’s desk to hold myself up. I didn’t know what to do. What do I do? Eventually, I stumbled down the hallway to where my friends were preparing for the day. I remember noticing that no one had turned the hallway lights on that morning. And then I broke down.

Minesh and Jay’s funeral was my first student funeral. I didn’t know what to do, what to say. What’s my role with his family, with his little sister, in their grief? How do I help? Do I try to help at all? I don’t know. When another student of mine died a few months later (also in a car crash), I did what I thought I was supposed to do: I hugged and supported the students who were friends with that child. I went to the viewing. I cried. I’m not my students’ parent, but I have a temporary quasi-parental role in the child’s life that makes me feel as if I should do more, say more, be more. But I don’t know what that is. As the teacher, I don’t know what’s appropriate, what’s expected, or even if appropriateness or expectations matter.

The deaths of former students are no easier, regardless of how long the child has been out of school as an adult. Once a student is enrolled in my class, I consider that student to be “mine” in a way that does not change once the student moves to the next grade level or graduates or gets married or starts growing gray hair. In my heart, that child is still a child, still the age he was when he was in my class, still in some way my responsibility.

In the real world, however, my role has technically ended. Maybe I know the child now as an adult in my community, or on Facebook, or perhaps as an employee in my school. Perhaps she makes a point of visiting school to see her teachers when she’s home from college, or maybe she follows me on Instagram. I have no formal role in that student’s life any more, but I still feel a responsibility, a connection, love. I don’t have a name for this type of friendship, and, when tragedy strikes, I don’t know what to do.

A student from my second year of teaching died over this past holiday break. I taught him when he was a senior in a class called Research Seminar. He was a star athlete, hilarious and handsome. Yes, he could sometimes be a pain in the neck. And he was mine. He died when he was 32 years old, a father, a citizen, a fiancé, an employee, a Facebook friend. But to me, he was still 17 years old, a kid, a baby. I went to his viewing; I hugged former students and other teachers. I cried.

At his high school graduation in 2002, he called me over to where his family was standing down near the bleachers. He wanted me to meet his dad. I was so touched by that gesture, so happy for him on his big day. I saw him a few years later in a shopping center parking lot. We chatted briefly about what we were both up to, and then we parted. He friended me on Facebook and Instagram a couple of years ago, and I was so delighted to see how well he was doing. His children are beautiful. He coached his son’s football team. His fiancée was one of my first students ever, and I adore her. Now, suddenly, unexpectedly, unfairly, he’s gone. Even though I have not seen him in person on a daily basis since 2002, somehow I feel a responsibility to do something, to say that I loved him, that he mattered.

There’s an adage in the education world that I believe is true: “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” Every year, I open myself up to kids to try to form that relationship. I ask them about themselves, I tell them about my life, I go to their soccer games, I watch their band concerts. I get to know them to be better equipped to help them have the lives they want to have. The price of that connection, of course, is that love can sometimes bring about loss and pain. The pain that comes with the death of a student—I don’t have words for it.

When that pain comes, I’m not sure what to feel. I’m not your family, but, in some way, you’re mine. I’m not your friend, but I remember every funny thing you ever did in class. I’m not your aunt or your boss or your next-door neighbor, but I brag about you to my friends and worry about your struggles as if I am. I don’t know what my role in your adult life is supposed to be, but I know your role in mine.

When I see former students as adults, I always recognize you. It may take me a minute to remember your last name, but I remember you. In-person adult interactions can make us both feel a little awkward. We once had this important, easy, daily connection, and now, well, what exactly is it? There’s a relationship in there somewhere. What is it? What does it mean? I don't know.

But I do know this: I know who you are. I remember you. I don’t care if you were a stellar student or a chronic discipline problem or a quiet kid in the corner or if you didn’t really fit into any category. I know. I remember. You’re mine. I still love you, and I always will.

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