I have been a teacher for 29 years. I have taught middle school reading, sixth grade and eighth grade English, eighth grade journalism, middle school library skills/research, elementary and middle school summer school, and now I work with new teachers in my school district. I spent 4 1/2 years in college working on my BA and 2 years in grad school working on my MSE, 6 and 1/2 years learning methods to teach and counsel children. I have spent thousands of hours in workshops and training learning more ways to hone my skills. Yet, no training, no class, and no teacher prepared me how to deal with the death of a student.
Having taught so many kids, I really don't know how many I have lost. I have never kept count. I do know that learning the news of a student's death is always such a blow to my heart.
Like most teachers, I felt my job was to prepare my students for the world outside of the classroom. I knew some would do well in the world and others would struggle. Some of my former students are all over the United States and are living their lives as I had imagined and some have certainly surprised me. They have grown-up to be mothers and fathers, doctors, garbage men, teachers, administrators, scientists, police, prison guards, secretaries, real estate agents, lawyers, prisoners, hair dressers, counselors, priests and ministers, homeless people, students, coaches, pilots, infantry men and women, sailors, athletes, and much more. And some never had the chance to grow up.
I lost the most wonderfully bright and delightful student to a tragedy two years ago. One day, she was sitting in my research class and the next day she was killed in a car accident. It stunned me to know that the last thought I had of her was her giggling with a friend over their computer research. She was an honor student, a class officer, a good example to her peers, and a sweetheart to have in class. It literally took my breath away when I received the call that she was gone. Even two years later, when I drove past the area where she died, I found myself breathless over the loss. However, the loss I feel when a student dies is no less if that student has struggled.
A few years after I had been teaching, I learned of the death of a student whose choices in life were not always the best. He had dropped out of school following eighth grade. He was a drug user and had been frequently arrested. He was difficult to teach as he was troubled both in and out of school. Much of my time with him was spent in frustration. But the loss was no less when I learned that he took his life. It was the "punch to the stomach," the breathless feeling I first experienced when I heard the terribly sad news.
Today, I heard that another former student had died. She was a young mother with two children, one I taught for two years. However, I don't see her face as the mother, but as the face of a mischievious seventh grader in the halls at Douglas Junior High. In my mind, she is laughing with Clarissa, wearing her "Hammer-Pants" and being nothing but a twelve year old girl moving along to her next class. Her long straight blonde hair sweeps over her blue eyes and she throws back her head and laughs at something one of her friends just said. But she is gone, joining the roster of the others I have lost.
I would never say that as a teacher we grieve more than families and friends who lose a loved one. As a teacher, my grief is different though, because no matter how long they have been away from me, they are always the child who sat in my class. For a little while, we shared something others might not understand. Everyday, I planned and gave them something that I hoped would help them learn, something they could take from my class and use for the rest of their lives. Their long lives, because in my plans and hopes for them, the time they would have would not end suddenly or shortly as it has been for some. For as I explained earlier, they are forever my students. Forever.