August 26, 2015

The Long Walk: When Death Shows Up To Class.


This semester, someone is (probably) going to die.

It’s back-to-school time!

And as I pretend I still have plenty of weeks to prepare for a semester’s worth of work and refuse to check my email, which by now probably has at least two of those “Hey Professor! I’m going to miss the first two weeks of class. Can you send me the work?” emails (to which the answer is a big fat NO), I’m also preparing for the following likely event:

This semester, someone is (probably) going to die.

I don’t know who it is.

And don’t get all freaked out, because I’m not saying it’s you. And if it’s me, you don’t automatically get an “A.” That’s an urban legend—I think.

But in my ten years of teaching experience, nearly every semester some sort of death has occurred in the lives of one of my students. This year, I’m going to be ready.

By now, you’re probably wondering if it’s me. If I have some sort of curse I inflict upon students and their loved ones if they don’t hand in their work on time. If that was the case, you’d all be screwed, so relax. Even I asked the same question of myself after the first few occurrences, but my colleagues tell me the same is true for them as well.

The thing they don’t prepare you for in grad school is that your students have lives—crazy, big, complicated lives—and sometimes, those lives come before everything you’re trained to do.

The first time I encountered death in the classroom, I was a brand new elementary school teacher.

I had made it through my second year and was celebrating with an end-of-the-year party to end all others. Pizza. Movies. Everything fifth-graders love. I probably had balloons and a pony ride too (which, like all teachers, I paid for out of my own pocket). I was just about to put on another movie (because let’s face it, no one teaches the last week—I mean day—of school) when the principal knocked on the door.

She spoke softly and to the point. One of my favorite student’s (If anyone tells you teachers don’t have favorites, they’re lying to your face) mother had died unexpectedly.

That day.

As in an hour ago.

And it was my job to keep her occupied and happy and oblivious until they could figure out what happened, what was going on and what to do next. This kind of thing was not in my contract, but not even the union could help me now.

I was never in drama club, but I have a feeling I’m a pretty good actress. And that’s exactly what I did for the next hour as I floated around from table to table. I put on a big act. I laughed at stupid kid jokes and tried not to stare at this student, or hug her, or sob all over her while I thought, “Your life is about to change forever, and you don’t even know it.”

That was the last day of school. The next day was the first day of summer.

The other teachers agreed it wasn’t their “responsibility” to go to the funeral. I wanted to go. I wanted to see my student’s face—a face that I couldn’t get out of my mind over the past few days. I wanted to make sure she was still standing and that if at any moment she found herself alone and needing to hold someone’s hand, I would be there for her.

What really happened was that I showed up clutching my husband’s hand, nervously giggled my way to the casket, and when I stood face-to-face with my student’s newly widowed father shrieked, “Hi! I’m so-and-so’s teacher! So nice to meet you!” Before running out the door I gave her a blank journal and told her to write all her memories of her mother in it.

And then I got the hell out of there. I was probably in that funeral home for four minutes, tops.

These days, things go down a little differently. I teach at a community college in the middle of a city. On the day of my first interview there, I watched a drug raid go down a block from where my office would eventually be. I can now match gangs with their tattoos and know which streets to avoid driving down.

In my classes, I have all kinds of student: single moms and dads, high school superstars, veterans, factory workers, future biochemists and plumbers and nurses. On some days, I love them so much it would make you want to throw up, but I love them even more on what is probably one of the worst days of their lives.

The thing I’ve discovered about these terrible situations is that in them, students do the opposite of what you’d expect them to do: They come to class.

There must be something about the sight of my frazzled face and my trembling hand clutching a cup of coffee and the promise of papers I swore I would get back to you a week ago that eludes healing and hope, because I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve discovered students in the middle of a crisis sitting in the front row taking notes.

Usually something tips me off. Sometimes they’re more quiet than usual. Or they’re taking notes. That is sometimes unusual too. Or their faces twitch every few minutes as they try not to cry. Whatever it is, I pick up on it like a hawk, because I’ve been that person in the front row trying not to break down, hoping someone would notice me and say something. (Only one professor ever did, and I am still grateful to you, Professor O’Connor).

This is how it usually goes down:

I notice a student looking upset. When they’re doing group work, I wander over to them and ask if they’re okay.

Not really, they tell me.

I dig further. It could be anything from a breakup to getting fired at work or a rotten landlord.

What’s up?

My brother. My girlfriend. My best friend. My (fill in the blank) died.

I’m so sorry to hear that. When did this happen? I ask.

This morning.

Oh no, I say. Then another oh no, only this time accompanied by a slew of incomprehensible interjections.

In that moment, everything else stops.

The assignment in progress, my awesome Prezi that I spent four hours making the night before, none of it matters. I lean over and whisper to the student, “Would you like to walk with me?”

They always do.

Each of those long, long walks have been heartbreaking and surreal. Car accidents. Murder. Cancer. We walk down whatever empty hallway we can find.

Then we do a few more laps.

They talk. I listen.

I tell them I want to give them a hug in a non-sexual harassment sort of way and they let me. They cry. Sometimes I cry too. And the whole time the rest of my class is doing whatever the hell they want, because this usually takes longer than three minutes and they have no clue where I’ve gone to. I don’t care though; I’ve seen other professors go to “make copies” for longer than that.

There aren’t really words that I can say to make anything better. I don’t think they expect me to have them, but I expect it of myself, because like them, I have stood in that same spot wondering, why am I not dead myself? And how the f*** am I supposed to ever care about anything ever again?

I can send them to the on-campus counselor, who will refer them to off-campus services, which they will probably never utilize, but until then, they’re mine.

So the next time I gather their books for them, grab a tissue from my office, and beg them to go be with someone who’ll take care of them in what is probably the worst day of their life, I want to tell them this before they walk out the door:

1. To use colloquial terms not appropriate for the classroom, this is going to suck. This whole thing is going to suck and the next few days, weeks, months will probably be some of the hardest you will ever encounter. (Just giving you a heads up.)

2. You are so loved. Even though you can’t feel it, you are so loved in this moment. By me, by the person you are missing, because you wouldn’t be hurting this much if they hadn’t loved you too. Let yourself feel some of that love. Just a little in between bouts of guilt, rage, confusion, denial, doubt, self-hatred. Take it where you can get it. You’re going to need it.

3. Your essay on symbolism in Things They Carried isn’t really that important right now. I appreciate you asking me if there’s work to do while you attend the wake, sit shiva, plan the funeral, etc. But can we be honest with each other now that we’ve had this moment together? You’re not going to write it. I probably wouldn’t want to read anything written by someone in the state you’re in anyway, so let’s just figure it all out when you get back. And by that I mean let’s just forget about it.

4. Someone is going to say something in the next few days that’s going to piss you off. I hope it’s not me, but they’re going to. A proper professor would advise you to handle it with dignity, consider the viewpoint of the other person, or to just let it roll off your back. I’m not saying get into a fight with your cousin at your grandma’s funeral, I’m just letting you know that people act in the strangest and most unexpected ways in situations like this. Sometimes their behavior is just as difficult to deal with as the loss itself. Only you know what is true for you and the relationship you have lost.

5. This is your time to be sad. This is your time to grieve. Don’t skip out on this. Don’t skimp on it either. Get the hell out of my office, get into your car, and cry until your eyes feel like they’re full of sand. Then go home or someplace safe, and do it again and again and again.

6. When you want to laugh, laugh. It doesn’t make you a bad person.

7. You have every right to be sad. So many times students say things like, “It’s not like he was my husband or anything, we were just dating but…” But nothing. That’s bullsh*t. I don’t care if he was your childhood dentist or the FedEx woman. If you felt a connection to someone, and now that connection is severed, you have every right to grieve just as much as anyone else. Don’t ever let anyone take your grief away from you. And no matter what you do, don’t give it away yourself.

8. This one depends on how long we spend talking, how much the student shares with me about their tragedy and their beliefs, but I tell them not to ignore the little signs. In the weeks after, when students check back in with me, they have told me amazing stories about signs they believed were messages from their loved ones. For the first time in a long time, I see their face light up as they tell me the details. I don’t care if I look like some crazy person for smiling back and telling them that’s wonderful. These are the same things that helped me get through many of my periods of bereavement; they deserve that comfort too.

9. It’s going to get better. And then it’s going to suck again. And again. And again. I’m not your therapist, but if you want to come and tell me about your cousin who passed away last week or the father you’re still mourning from ten years ago, I will listen. And not in a “This chic is crazy. When is she going to get out of my office so I can get to the Keurig machine?” way, but a have a seat, here’s a tissue kind of way.

10. You’re going to hear a lot of bad advice in the next few weeks. Maybe it starts with the nine pointers I have listed above, maybe not. Just remember that even though everything feels like you’ve lost all control (because if you had any control over things, none of this would have ever happened, would it?) you are still in control of what you believe. Only you will know how to play this one out. If anyone tells you you aren’t doing this grieving thing right, they’re nuts. And I hate them.

11. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry for the things you’ll never get to do with your beloved now—the things that have been ripped away from you. I’m sorry about the past you might be regretting. I’m sorry for the present that is causing you pain. And I’m sorry for the future, in which you’ll discover a thousand new things you loved about this person, and just when you rush to tell them, you remember once more that they’re gone.

I probably won’t hang this on my office door or put it in my syllabus (because that would require more work than I intend to do on one of the last days of summer), but the next time it happens—and it will happen again—I will be ready.

When it does, my hope is not that the student will leave my office in a better mood, for that won’t come for a long time. My hope is that some day in their future break room at work, at a gas station, in a doctor’s office, they will notice someone else trying to keep it together.

And instead of ignoring them, they’ll ask them if they’re okay, knowing full well they aren’t.

But that’s alright, because by then, my students will have gained enough insight and learned enough about compassion on their journey through grief to help the next person as they embark on theirs.


Author: Elizabeth Gittens

Editor: Toby Israel

Photo: Flickr/King


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