When a student dies

There are stats from my time teaching that I’m absolutely proud of:  making it 8 years in the classroom, my classes averaging 4 points growth on the English portion of the ACT, being voted Teacher of the Year twice (once by students and once by fellow staff), choosing a book for my curriculum that was stolen by at least six students, watching 14 boys that I followed in my homeroom from freshman year to senior year walk across the stage at graduation.

But then there are stats from my time teaching that shake me to the core, even now when I’m years removed from some of them:  seven boys from my homeroom dropped out of school, two times I had to be a mandated reporter, 30+ times my students were jumped walking to or from school.

The most tragic of these numbers is this: 6 students who I had taught are dead. 3 from gun violence. 3 from suicide.

 


 

I found out about Pierre’s death from that one student who will “snitch” about anyone and anything (students overuse and misuse the word snitch frequently, but in this case, it’s justified since the student was usually complicit in most of the “criminal activity” for which he was taddling).

The student walked into my room, pulled out his phone, and showed me a video on facebook.

The video was taken from the second story of a house that overlooked the yard the student breathed his last. In the dark clip, the body lay face down and motionless on a dimly lit sidewalk. His left leg lay on the ground while his right was propped up, helplessly entangled in the fence. His arms were behind his back, hand-cuffed.   A cluster of police stood on his side of the fence, pointing flashlights and shifting around him.  More were on the other side.  The only audible words were “Roosevelt” and “Grenshaw.”

I wish the student hadn’t shown me the video, yet I found myself rewatching it from my own account for the rest of my planning period.  My morbid curiosity staved off the creeping anguish that would have crippled my instruction for most of the day.

 


 

To say the death of a young person is tragic is understatement at best.  The loss affects their families and their friends the hardest. The peers who knew the young person also feel the ripple.  But as teachers, the consequences of a student’s death is complicated by our role in the school.

We are expected to be rocks–the cornerstones of the class and the school culture.  We are to be the steady shoulder and the calm compass. We shouldn’t laugh (but often can’t help it) when a student makes a raunchy joke or our chair makes the sound of flatulence. We hone our anger so that when we administer discipline, it is stern and just and tactfully given.  And when our students are burdened by the incredible grief from death, we tell ourselves this lie that we can’t cry in front of our students–that their tears can only be dabbed away if we ourselves are dry-eyed.  We have to be in complete control.

But we also know that the best teachers are vulnerable, emotionally and socially.  We know that effective instruction begins with authentic connections.  Our students’ lives and our own become intertwined: we cheer for them in and out of the classroom, we swim in the wake of their emotions, we absorb their joys and pains.

Even the students that drive us crazy are etched into our hearts (and if they aren’t we might be too burnt out to be in the classroom).

Thus, our response in front of our students often directly contrasts the pain we feel under the surface.

 


 

After finally prying myself from the video, I sent a message out to some friends and family.

Pray for my students and our staff.  A former student was shot by police.

It was a sincere message.  As much as “thoughts and prayers” get ridiculed, I believe in the power of prayer (but I believe we must act on the sentiments behind our prayer).

I got a handful of responses about praying for healing for those affected and that people would learn from it (whatever “it” was).  I got a response about praying for family and that it was a tragedy for “everyone involved.”  And then I got another message from a different person: “So sad.”  Followed by Pierre’s name.  Followed by “Gang member. Again, PLEASE be careful.”

Did I need to be careful? Probably not.  I’ve found teachers get a weird immunity from violence, especially those teachers who get to know their students, though wayward bullets know no profession or intent.

Was he a gang member? Probably.  I spent the rest of my morning prep period perusing his Facebook posts, and there were clues:

Someone reminiscing about telling him not to get a face tattoo, to which he responded that he’s in too deep not to get it. A post from someone who said “My Lil Shorty Kept That Pole He A Body Dropper” with picture of Pierre holding up a gun. Various other posts said they will make sure they wipe out a whole block of a rival gang.

But no one’s life should be summarized in two words–in this case, “Gang member”– as if that was reason enough to cast his memory aside. As if two years of vague criminal associations and suspected criminal behavior was reason enough to imply a just cause of death. As if the student wasn’t an incredibly complex individual with intelligence and compassion and humor and a cool smirk that held such a mysterious power over anyone who received it.

 


 

Unwittingly, I remember every former student by their smiles.

They could curse me out. Threaten me. Disrupt every lesson.  But I always go to their smiles first before I wade into the other interactions.

Sometimes I wish I didn’t remember them like that…

There are some students I just want to dismiss.  They come in ice-cold and bitter.  They snap at me even when I extend myself to them. They lash out at their peers and the staff with little provocation or cause.

Then I remember their stories.

When we gave the Adverse Childhood Experience assessment (More info here), almost every single student had at least one or two.  Many had three to four.  Some had 8 or 9 out of the 10 possible.

They have experienced more in their lives than I have, though I double their age. And many have been thrust into adulthood long before their brains fully developed. So when they curse me out at the drop of a hat (or, rather, because I ask them to take off their hat), there is a displacement that I recognize in their actions that I can now (after eight years of teaching) absorb and look beyond.

That’s why it’s easy for me to remember their smiles. Just as it is easy, it’s also important for me to remember their smiles.

If I didn’t, I’d lose hope or compassion or patience…or my sanity.

 


 

Pierre never openly laughed at my jokes.  I don’t blame him.  I’m a mozzarella stick (that is: I am cheesy…get it?).

Instead, he’d lean back and smirk.   His lips stretched enough to embrace the amusement, but his teeth imprisoned any verbal response that would betray an unrestrained mirth.  Everything with Pierre was calculated, at least inside the walls of our school.  He found power in his intelligence.  He found an opportunity to press the power structures in the school setting. He found himself surrounded by safe people.  Unfortunately, he also didn’t find exigence to stay in school.  Money, risk-taking, friendships, glamor…I don’t know what it was that drew him from our grasp.

I still believe we could have done more.  If only I given him more time.  If only I hadn’t given him that detention.  If only I had given him the inspiration the teachers in the movies and television shows give to their wayward youth.  If only I had given more of myself…

Then maybe Pierre would have been given a second chance.

I think about Pierre often. I think about all my lost students, living or not.

 


 

Sadie had the deepest dimples I’d ever seen.  Her eyes nearly shut when joy burst from her face. I could coax out some of that beautiful smile through classroom activities. Those are the moments teachers savor.

Lucia, who went by Bernard when I taught him, smiled like the anime characters (s)he so enjoyed.  (S)he always shook my hand when (s)he entered my class.

Wendall’s gap toothed smile was the sincerest I’d found in those first two years. From his lips flowed “big words,”  sometimes used correctly, but my gosh he loved language. It was infectious.

The other two students I barely saw.  They were in and out of school.  I did see them smile: when our principal tried to dance, when a student accidentally farted when leaning over to pick-up a paper, when I told him that LeBron was trash and that I could beat him in a game of one-on-one, in a picture when he went out with his homeroom advisor for BW’s.

 


 

There’s a lot about education those who were only students will never understand. Some of those people will make asinine comments like “those who can, do: those who can’t, teach.”  Or they’ll whine about teachers getting the summers off.

I can do the economics of why teachers are underpaid, but there are better videos and webpages dedicated to that cause.  And while there’s good cause for teachers to feel under-appreciated in ways that Chipotle’s buy-on-get-on-free once a year can’t fix, I realize some teachers make sure to rub the “woe-is-me” flag in the face of all they encounter.  This is not my intention in this post.

For one, I am still processing all that I’ve encountered, both on my own and with my students.  Second, I guess I am intending to memorialize those I will never see again. But I also want to show there are parts of teaching for which people fail to account and of which we are grossly unprepared to shoulder.

Dealing with student deaths is one of them.