Another of my students will be buried this week. As a seasoned educator, it never gets easier. The news comes over the local channels, we wait for the identification, and then the email from administration verifies that indeed, it was one of ours. As a staff, we gather details, put a grievance plan in place for the surviving student body, and pretend we have answers to an event that we can barely wrap our heads around.
I cannot tell you the number of students that, over a 36 year career span, I have said the most final good-bye to. (And yes, I did end that sentence with a preposition, but frankly, grammar is not foremost on my mind). Some of 'my kids' have lost a battle with cancer, cystic fibrosis, military deployment, drug overdose, car accident, and murder; the toughest is suicide. That one kicks me in the gut and never lets go. Years later, this veteran teacher will ponder every harsh word, punishment, and the ultimate insult: treating that kid as if he/she were invisible. Want to punish kids? Shun them. If there are established relationships---and I would like to think that relationship is my strongest suit inside the walls of public education--those students whom I have pushed to the far edge of my attention, will do anything to get in my good stead. It may sound harsh, but it is good for us both to get that much-needed space to reflect on our next step. Besides that, I am lousy at pushing them away for long. I miss them too much. The point here is this: once that kid is gone I question whether I gave him/her my best or my leftovers. It is both humbling and haunting.
Today, this boy became a hand-gun statistic. A fifteen year old, making all the wrong choices, when daily-- we preached to him about making right ones. Our best, impassioned sermons of embracing life and living it to the absolute fullest, pales in the bombardment of obtaining what Hollywood dictates, combined with the acceptance that these young folks crave. Every message that coats their brain can be obtained in one easy accessory: a gun. Guns denote power, status, protection. Firearms are as easy for kids to get as buying or stealing a loaf of bread. If rims on a car, gold chains around the neck, a cell phone replete with apps, or shoes that cost more than their textbook rental is important: this stuff will become a young person's god. Young folks will sacrifice future for the immediate.
Oh, and before we utter, "Kids these days!" we must remember: we also repeated the mantra of youth: "It will never happen to me." This is what pushed us to drive too fast, date the bad boyfriend, lie to our parents when we came home too late. and perhaps, shoplift that jewelry that never would end up under the Christmas tree. Youth clouds our thinking. And then the trigger is pulled. Reality is the voice that calls the time of death. All of our best lectures about hope bleed out of that child and our hugs, high fives, kind words, will join him in the grave. Yet, never are we sorry that we took a moment to make that student feel valued; time spent on a child is never wasted. We must never stop loving those pupils who file into our classrooms, sizing us up, reluctant to taste what we are feeding them. I was that student who hated the walls of every school I attended. Life takes funny turns, and now I would rather be in a school room with your kids than any place else.
But, I want all of my kids to be there, too. Yes, the one that died on Sunday morning. The school picture flashed on the T.V. screen does not reveal his laugh, his ninja-like leap to hang up a peer's artwork for this short teacher, or his joy at challenging me to a basketball jump shot towards the trash can. When he volunteered to read aloud, I knew he was being brave and feeling secure in our class. School was a struggle and reading skills slumped in comparison to his athletic abilities. Yet, he got brave and maneuvered through challenging literature while this teacher hid her smile at his courage. So much I will miss, but his future is the thing I would trade my life for. He was fifteen, I am sixty-one. He could have had my unused minutes.
Today, I help pitch-in for his burial clothes. My memories of him are like filters to my every thought. I cannot believe that this kid, frozen in time, will forever be my former 8th grade student. Like the old song by Rod Stewart, 'Forever Young' this is how it is with students. Most do grow up, graduate, marry, become parents; but in my mind, they are still that 2nd, 5th 6th, 7th, 8th grader that stole my heart.
He came to me young and left me young. I pointed him towards tomorrow but he chose that crazy, violent moment to stay 'Forever Young'. Another child I had to say goodbye to, way, way too soon.