Thursday, March 20, 2008

An Introduction to Grief

I'm finding it really hard to write the last 2 days. I started something night before last, but I couldn't concentrate on anything long enough yesterday to edit and post. And in light of what happened at our school, it seemed trivial.

We lost a student at our school yesterday morning. I didn't know the kid by name, but once I saw his pictureI knew who he was and remembered that he'd been in the library quite a bit this year. In fact, on Tuesday afternoon I had sent him back to class after I had found him roaming down here without a note from his teacher. Even though I've learned this lesson many times before, I was a little shaken up by the fact that someone can be walking, talking, living, and breathing one afternoon, and be gone before the sunrise the next morning. It's not supposed to work that way for someone so young.

Our counselors and administrators used the library as a crisis center yesterday. From the first bell through around lunchtime, the library was a place where groups of students could gather to grieve and receive counseling. I've never heard anything like it; his whole first period class gathered here yesterday morning and those who didn't already know were given the news. The sobs I heard were heartwrenching; these kids, in many cases, were being given their first introduction to mortality and loss. I don't think I saw any students "faking it", at least not in the first hour of the day; these young people were genuinely hurting.

When his English teacher came in, visibly shaken and upset, it took me back to my first year teaching when I lost a 9th-grade student. On a beautiful Monday morning in May, I was met outside my room by one of my former school's counselors. She told me one of my freshmen had died Sunday morning in a senseless car accident. I was stunned. I was 23 years old, fresh out of college, and had never been faced with the death of a young person. The counselor patted my shoulder, told me to let the kids in her period talk about it, asked me to send anyone down who was visibily upset, and left. "Jessica didn't have a very big circle of friends," I remember her saying. "You should be fine if you just leave her desk empty for a while and let the kids talk about it if they need to."

Problem was, I wasn't so fine. The counselor hadn't briefed me on what to do if I fell apart. This student had been one of my struggling students, but unlike many I had that year, she admitted that she needed help and really wanted to pass. I had worked with her a little after school and had helped her go through draft after draft on her two major writing pieces that year. Helping her had been one of my biggest challenges that year. And then she was gone. At fifteen years old.

I had Jessica 5th period, so I had practically all day to prepare for her class. What the counselor told me, that she didn't travel in a large circle, didn't matter. Students in my other freshmen classes came in bleary-eyed, solemn, tearful. They had just lost one of their own. Whether they knew her or not, they were in shock. One of her good friends was in one of my morning classes, and when I stood in front of them and asked if anyone needed to talk, or say anything, this poor girl who had hardly said "Boo" all school year tearfully opened up with how much she was going to miss Jessica, and how unfair it was. I felt myself welling up. Oh, God, I thought. I'm not going to make it. I'm going to lose it in front of this class.

But then I was saved. "...and she hated your class," she said, at the end of her impromptu eulogy. And the whole class, myself included, busted out laughing. It felt so good to laugh at that moment. "No, no," the friend said, laughing in spite of herself, "I don't mean that she hated you. She just struggled so much with reading and writing, but she was working so hard and she was trying so hard to pass. She liked you. She just didn't like English. But she was excited because she thought she was going to pass." And then we all grew quiet again; we were talking about her in the past tense.

Later in the day I had to stand in front of her empty chair in the front row of my classroom. None of those normally chatty kids wanted to talk that day, about anything; not about Jessica, not about what we were half-heartedly studying, not to each other when they thought I wasn't looking. But they all kept glancing at her chair.

A few days later when I wanted to go to the funeral, my assistant principal said, "Oh, that's good. We need to be represented there." And then he told me I would have to find my own coverage and use half a personal day for it. Not another of Jessica's teachers came to the funeral.

The way my current school is handling this student's death is so much bettter. They've acknoweldged that more people need to grieve than those who were in the student's closest circle of friends. They've acknoweldged that his teachers are going to need to be checked on, too, and that it should be easy for those teachers to attend his service so that they can pay their respects and say goodbye. They've realized that the first time we lose someone we know who's our own age, it shocks us; there, but for the grace of God, go I. Kids think they're going to live forever, and it's a blow when they see that they're mortal and that their actions can have the worst of consequences.

It was a pretty rough day yesterday, being surrounded by grief. There were times, when a fresh wave of sobs came up, that it was more than I could take and I had to step into the office (which was a different kind of horrible, with parents calling to check on their kids and offer them some kind of comfort.) But today we as a school are teaching the most important lesson of all when it comes to loss: life must, and will, go on.

No comments: