A Teacher's Grief
I hope that in my writings on this blog so far that I have demonstrated the value of my reflection. I hope that in my writing my truth has been shared enough that I’ve earned what I say below. I think Caroline and I work very hard on this blog to be productive in our reflections and we both worry about what we say and how it comes off.
I’m making this statement because I’m struggling with how to write about the past week. I was entirely prepared to reflect on my first production ever at Riverdale Ridge and on my efforts as co-sponsor of student government during our first “Homecoming” week. But then Thursday happened and everything feels so distant now.
In what was an already isolatingly busy week, on Thursday I received news that a student I had had last year as a freshman at Brighton High School had passed away. It was news that stopped me in my tracks as I was loading my car in the parking lot of King Soopers before school. I was neither at the school I called home for so long or the school I am starting to call home now. I was lost and as I drove I couldn’t figure out where to go or what to do.
It has already been a tough enough year stepping out onto my own. I’ve talked before about the utter joy I’ve had when I get emails from my BHS students. It’s about the time in the year when I expected the reaching out to slow down and the struggle of separation to subside. We would all start finding our way. Then, in an instant, that deep-down sensation of feeling lost and alone burst back up and won’t go away.
When I finally got to Riverdale Ridge after finding out, I landed in the parking lot and just kept saying through the tears that I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what direction to go or what I needed to be doing. It was fresh and raw and I could not find my way. It has been my instinct for as long as I can remember, but particularly the last few years, to just throw myself into my work when personal matters are getting muddy. It’s how I’ve ended up losing touch with so many of my dearest friends and not stopping to feel those losses.
I opted to jump into work and continue teaching that day. The running to-do list I constantly have in my head won out over the heart-wrenching emotion I was feeling. I had class to get through and a movie night to get setup and a dance to make sure was ready to go. The busyness won out. As I’ve sat today and thought through this past week and the last few days, I am not so sure I made the right decision in that moment.
The role of a teacher is a tricky balance between personal and professional. We are human beings and so much of my belief of being a good teacher is being a teacher who connects with my students. We are asked to keep pressing on and not let our emotions take over and yet we are also meant to provide models of what it is to be human and a citizen. My grief was on display and it was a deeply uncomfortable experience for me, particularly in front of classes where I am still not feeling entirely at home yet.
I was given the option to go to Brighton High School, but in my head it made no sense to do so. I would’ve felt in the way. Yet again, I felt as though my grief as a teacher needed to rest in the background. This is what I am confused by. I don’t know how I am supposed to feel or what my role in this is. Then I feel frustrated by the selfishness of my own perspective.
I’ve had brief moments of quiet in the short amount of time since I found out about my student. In those moments, memories with this young man keep popping into my head. There are certain kids you get to work with that help set the tone for a class. They are willing to play with you and in doing so, show the rest of the class who you are. That was the case. My eighth period was a better place because he and I could riff with each other and joke and play. We had a daily greeting and a silent code when he needed to get back on track or take it down a notch. I teased him for his voice immodulation. He was one of my “full name” kids.
I have always felt strange about sharing grief. It has, from a young age, felt like a very selfish act. I can’t ever claim to know what was going on in his mind and his life. I can only reflect on my role and relationship with him. Finally having a day to stop and reflect has only solidified the importance of sharing out where I’m at.
Being a teacher is more than data points and goal statements. It is about heart and connections and building community through relationships. This week was full of the rewards of those relationships, like, for example my drama kids from BHS taking the time to come see my Opening Night. This week was also full of the pain of those connections.
It is important to me that people recognize the impact students have on their teachers and just how important and valued they are to us. We spend our lives living and working in communities and we get to see these young people grow up. We feel the joy and pride and frustration and pain as we do. These are real emotions and we can’t step away from them.