Emma was sunshine personified. She was salty hair and smiles and surfing. She was the student who sat in the front row, the one who showed up early to class just to chat. Emma died this past September in a car accident, one day after I revised her college essay, one day after she told me “one more concussion and I’ll be dead,” one day after she laughed off my nervous, “Be careful!”
When I first hear the news, I had been given the wrong students’ name, and I am ashamed to admit that for a moment I selfishly breathed a sigh of relief. But then her picture loaded, the pixelated image appeared line by line on my smartphone, her sandy blonde hair and smile, flashing section by section and I fell apart alone in my living room at 6:30am.
That was only the beginning.
Quickly students began unraveling. I am a second year teacher, a relative novice in the education world, yet I feel like I have lived a thousand lives. Had you asked me to reflect on my world after my first year, I would have peppered you with stories of passionate readers and personal successes, comedic performances of Macbeth, and classes that became family.
This year was different.
The questions weren’t the same, and while my first year had its own challenges, my second year was consumed with worst case scenarios. How was I supposed to deal with my seventeen-year-old students’ funeral? Where should I go when my student has an anxiety-induced nervous breakdown in the middle of class? How do I respond when my entire class just watched their classmate carried out in handcuffs? Or punched in the face in the middle of class? Or attacked by another student with psychiatric disorders and no impulse control? What do I do when my student disappears after being threatened with gang violence? Or because they attempted suicide? And these were only a handful of questions that I dealt with.
I have learned that there are years of innovation and then there are years of transformation. This was my year of transformation. No workshop or course could have prepared me to deal with the needs of my students this year. From them, I have learned unconditional commitment as a teacher. I have defended the rights of my students to remain in my classroom despite their disabilities. I have learned the value of opening my classroom as a safe space for those who have no place to go, whether that is at 7:00am or 4:30pm, to chat or just to read silently away from the prying eyes of peers. I have learned the value of openly modeling enthusiasm and empathy, of thanking them for filling my days with humor and love. I have learned the value of showing them that their words matter—that I will get their friend help immediately, that I will notice their change in disposition and book them an appointment with the school case worker, that I will sit with them in silence if that’s what they need.
I have a week-and-a-half left with my students, and while this year has saturated every ounce of my being, I will enter summer both as a stronger teacher and individual. As always, the end of our journey together is bittersweet, maybe even more so this year after the amount of time and personal energy I have invested into my students’ well being and success. This summer, I will delve into new novels and make lists of new lesson plans. I’ll attend multiple courses and collaborate on curriculum development, but I won’t forget that at the heart of my job is compassion. I can only hope that my students learn as much from me as I learn from them.