I looked across the wrestling mat and saw my curriculum coordinator on the other side. Typically, all practices, whether athletic or academic, are strictly no-enter zones for anyone not directly associated with the team, so I knew that something was wrong.
I handed my whistle to an assistant coach and approached him.
With red eyes strained from the passed several minutes of hard weeping, he told me.
E had died. I dropped to the ground and wept.
E was one of those students that a teacher dreams about. She was bright, beautiful, and just a pleasant person to be around. When she was near you, you felt like a better person. She made you feel that what you did had value, and she wasn’t afraid to remind you of this on a near weekly basis – in a non-direct, non-brownnosing way. She came from one of the greatest families I had ever had the opportunity to interact with. She drowned on a missionary trip. This was devastating.
Over the near decade of teaching, it’s shocking to tabulate the number of students, past or current that died through my career, it’s a high-number that even urban teaching cannot explain: one was shot while selling weed on a busy corner, another had the same fate after leaving an all-ages club in the early morning, on the same day that E died another student drove home from college and got into a car accident, killing her and other passengers on board.
And now this year, a student passed away after a long, hard fight with cancer. His name was G and I met him only after cancer had eaten away at his body and his mind – I didn’t get to see G without cancer. I don’t know what he looked like, I can’t picture him without his wheelchair, I can’t picture him speaking.
Towards the end of his life, G and his family requested that his life be as normal as possible. G was placed in high school and attended classes. Of course he was exempt from all assignments and attendance standards, but he was there. I heard he even went to some parties and sporting events – trying to be as normal as possible.
One day the email came stating that G would no longer be attending school, that he was too weak and tired to make the three block trip. He was put on permanent in-home hospice care.
The day they announced it to the student body, they self-organized, walked to his house, and stood outside in a showing of solidarity with the dying boy who they all had grown up with. If you hadn’t cried about G in the past, you did on that day.
It was beautiful.
G died shortly after Christmas of this year.
Every teacher enters the profession as an idealist: you go in with your Dead Poet’s Society headspace ready to change the world one child at a time. An image of your impact on student lives is painted in pop-culture and grad school classes that teach you to be optimistic, understandings, open-minded and to be caring.
It rarely lasts.
Your idealism gets chipped away over time. You care as much as you possibly can and you tell your students this on a regular basis – you try to humanize yourself to them, hoping to build a bridge.
This bridge slowly gets chipped away – that is, slowly if you’re lucky. You begin to realize over time that you sometimes care more about your students’ lives and futures than they do. You chalk that up to youth, but later realize that you oftentimes care more about it than their own parents do. And that’s when the bridge collapses.
You cross out of the Idealistic Phase of teaching and begin to enter the Realistic Phase, you begin to note that your job is not meant to lead students to their education goals, but rather to increase standardized exam scores so that the school can meet its own financial goals.
And that’s when you notice that your job is designed only to give politicians statistical numbers that can be mentioned in a press release or into a microphone.
I’m not the smiley, jokey guy I was only four years ago. I barely talk about my personal life in class, I don’t tell stories nearly as often. I barely smile anymore. I’m brutal, honest, and fair. I tell my kids that they need to “figure it out” rather than “tell me what I can do for you”. I’ve gone from “oh yeah, once when I was a kid…” to “that’s personal and none of your business”.
Rewrites? How about try harder next time? How about you take this failing grade because you deserve it, and learn that I’m not here to entertain you, but to help you build skills beyond writing and reading, and manipulation is not one of them.
The irony in this whole situation is that students will tell you they find the Idealists to be jokes and the Realists to be “real”, oftentimes laughing at the Idealists in class.
I have a wall between my students and me; none can get through it. Some people call it the Jaded Phase. They’re right.
And then G died. They took his name off the class roster last week. And once again, despite all defenses, I was devastated again.
There’s an inexplicable bond in the teacher-student relationship that transcends whether or not a teacher is Idealistic or Realistic. Students know you’re “real” by being honest, by being objective, and being fair. And you as the teacher incorrectly feel that you are distant and untouchable.
Teachers create futures. We invest ourselves in our students in the hopes that it somehow makes their futures easier – and learning that that future won’t happen, robs us of our purpose.
And whether you’re an Idealist or a Realist, whether you are optimistic to a flaw or pessimistic to a flaw, losing a student leaves you empty.