If only I could nudge you from this sleep.
There’s a heartbreaking, but beautiful poem by Theodore Roethke that’s been circling in my mind for some time now called “Elegy for Jane.” The sentiments of the speaker, a teacher, could very well match my own. Because it’s an elegy and also begins with the subtitle, “My student, thrown from a horse,” the outcome is clear. Once a sweet little “wren” flitting about, bringing joy and laughter into the lives around her, Jane left this world too soon. By the end, the poem shifts attention away from Jane and onto the speaker where he contemplates why he’s standing at her fresh grave—what right does he have to mourn like this when he is neither a spouse nor a parent? He’s just a teacher. And he’s at a loss identifying these feelings.
The speaker may not understand, but I do. When you’re training for this profession, nobody ever tells you how much you’re going to love them. Or that many will suffer unspeakable tragedies. Or that many will die.
I thought it would get easier, but it doesn’t. I stood at the casket tonight of a man who died of a heroin overdose, but underneath the mortician’s makeup, I saw a shadow of the boy who barreled into class ready to derail every lesson and tried to charm me into, well, anything but British literature; the kid whose leg shook each football game day because he just couldn’t wait to charge the field; the baseball player who screamed the lyrics of “Buttercup” and rallied the whole team, whether there was a win or a loss. My student. Gone.
Looking around the funeral home, there they were. My kids, only now adults. So many approached, wondering if I remembered them. Of course I do. Some apologized for not keeping in touch. It’s okay. Some apologized for treating me like shit all those years ago. That’s okay too. I wanted their faces to comfort me, but they didn’t. I steadied myself so as to not shake their shoulders and beg them to be safe—beg them not to be the next casket I cry over. Their older, wiser eyes looked like they had seen a lot as well. They were different eyes than the ones I dried at another autumn funeral 15 years ago. Another classmate, another drug overdose. She was 16, and my first student death.
It’s a matter of numbers, really. The more saturated my personal student population, the more likely I am to witness tragedy. But I’m 19 years in, and I’m tired. I’m tired of waking up on weekend mornings to see #RIP all over my social media. I’m tired of my kids getting hit by drunk drivers—suffering life-altering brain injuries and paralysis. I’m tired of motorcycle accidents, suicides, gunshots, and drug overdoses. I’m tired of holding the hands of parents I once laughed with at Back to School Night, relaying my condolences, when I know they will never be happy again.
What was once an unexpected tragedy is now a ritual. I hear the news, I sort through the e-mails, texts, and Facebook messages from my graduates, I call my two best friends, also teachers—also shaken to the core because this is their kid too. We meet in the English office the next morning, walk into my room to stare at the collage of that particular graduating class, and make plans. Jason will drive, Rachel and I will wear the funeral outfits we always wear, we’ll get coffee beforehand. We will immerse ourselves in our current students to ameliorate the sting and try to talk about anything else, all the while preparing ourselves. Another funeral home, another tiny card with a prayer or poem on the back, another casket filled with high school memorabilia. Another goodbye.
As Roethke points out, it’s complicated. Teachers are charged with guiding, instructing, and caring for kids at an intensely vulnerable and formative time in their lives. It’s a huge responsibility and one I’ve never taken lightly. But, at the end of each year, as I let them go, I’m forced to remind myself that they’re not really mine. They have their own moms, just like I have my own son. But that doesn’t make any of this easier. Tonight I said goodbye to one of my 2235. A man who left this world far too soon. A child who wasn’t mine, but also was—at least for one year, 48 minutes each day.