Late last week one of our students passed away. I didn’t really know the young man, but like pretty much everyone else at the school, I knew of him. My school has about 1300 students (1650 when the 8th graders who are currently housed in our building are included) and since I only teach Advanced Placement juniors and seniors, it’s rare I know freshmen or sophomores. Generally the only reason I know the names or faces of underclassmen is if they are related to my AP kids or if they cause trouble.
He was the latter.
I’d heard several of my colleagues express frustration at his antics. Granted, what frustrated them wasn’t horrific behavior. He wasn’t really one to get into fights, although if there was one in a 10 mile radius, he’d be there, watching and maybe egging it on. He wasn’t usually in your face rude or disrespectful, but he pushed the envelope to the far edge of acceptability most days. He liked being the center of attention and if that meant he had to mouth off a bit to a teacher, that was fine by him. If he didn’t like a rule, he pretty much ignored it.
That’s how I got to know him. He was in third lunch and every other week, I had last lunch supervision, so every other week, I saw him multiple times each lunch period and usually I was telling him to put his cellphone away or take his earbuds out (both are against policy). He only got angry with me once about it, but it was easy to see how he might be a handful in a classroom.
Wednesday night, I got a text from one of my coworkers telling me he’d been killed in a freak accident. She forwarded me an email sent out by an administrator at the middle school since despite being a sophomore, he had relatives and friends in the 8th grade who the administration was worried about. About thirty minutes later, everyone on our staff got a similar email and a request to meet in the school library the next day.
Thursday was a strange day. The young man had been fairly popular and had friends in every grade in our building. The hallways were flooded with kids embracing and sobbing. Our library became a giant counseling center for kids to gather and talk. Every time I passed by it was full. A young lady whose name I don’t know, but who I see on lunch duty was red-faced and when I stopped to check on her, she started crying and reached out to hug me. I watched some of the toughest kids at the school break down in tears. One of my good friends who often decried his antics in her classroom was on the constant verge of tears, because although he’d often driven her crazy, she’d liked him and his loss was devastating to her. It was a heartbreaking day.
On Friday morning, students wore red and released balloons in honor of him. The hallways were a little quieter than usual. The lunchroom was a little louder. On the surface, things were back to normal, but they clearly weren’t.
This is not the first time we’ve had a student die. In fact, in the 13 years I’ve been at this particular school, we’ve had five students die while still in high school (far more have tragically passed away at some point after graduation). Two years ago, we had a senior who passed away the night before graduation. His twin brother was one of my AP kids and my newspaper editor, so I was quite close to him. Although I barely knew my editor’s twin, he was a sweet, quiet kid. He was a big part of many of my kid’s lives, so after graduation practice, I had about 20 kids in my room hugging and sobbing and talking until I had to teach class again. It was a very hard graduation to get through.
Even when you don’t really know the kids who pass away, it is so hard because you feel like something is missing. While I may not have really known the young man, I know so many people who are grieving his loss. In a way, the entire school is. It’s just another way that teaching is so much more than a job. For many of us on Thursday, school wasn’t about teaching math or science or history or English. It was about being a safe place for kids to begin to deal with overwhelming grief and loss. I had so many colleagues who said they had to completely scrap their lessons, just over a week before finals, because they knew their kids could not learn. They did the only thing they could for their kids, gave them a space to talk and just be.
Teaching is such a rewarding job, but it is also a heartbreaking one.