I read in the paper that Lucas was driving too fast. He hit the tree at about 85 miles an hour, alone in the car. He was killed instantly. He was 28 years old.
I know that he wasn’t just killed. I murdered him.
Lucas was my student in the fourth grade. He was a handsome boy. He had dark hair and sharp features. He walked with grace and poise, even at his age. All the girls liked him. Schoolwork was not his greatest ability. He sometimes misbehaved. But I liked him. I called on him when he had his hand up. I helped him learn how to play chess.
I remember when his mother came in to the teacher/parent meeting. She looked like a worn tire. She had put a lot of mileage on herself. She did not have the energy to smile. Everything about her drooped.
I hated telling her that Lucas’ grades were not that great. That he sometimes misbehaved. I prefaced it with how much I liked him. I don’t think it helped. I think it is a story that she has heard again and again. Lucas had already been left back in kindergarten.
I asked why Lucas’ father was not at the meeting. “I don’t know where he is,” she said. It was the first time that I heard something like that. It was my second year of teaching the fourth grade. I knew even then that she was barely able to take care of herself. How was she going to manage an 11-year-old boy?
My own children were still 15 years away. I cared for Lucas. The information that I got from his mother did not make me feel any more compassion for him. This did not make me feel like I could be a father figure. Later, I learned in therapy that I had been carrying the weight of my own past. It had influenced my thoughts and behavior. I treated Lucas like I cared, but it wasn’t enough. I was not mindful. I was not compassionate.
During a lesson one time, Lucas asked a question about something that I said. I remember being exasperated after going over the material again and again. I don’t remember what it was about. I was more focused on getting out my material than thinking about the young lives that would cling to every word I said.
What I do remember is that was the day I killed him. In exasperation, I repeated what I had said, and followed it with, “What are you, deaf?” I could see him die right there. He was humiliated in front of the class. It was a phrase that I had heard growing up. It came out. Even when I pulled the blade out that was made of the words that I stabbed him with, it was too late. He wasn’t going to make it.
For days, I heard my own students repeating it. It was like the death of Caesar. I had given every one of my students a knife to kill him with. I stabbed first, and they were willing to follow my lead. My apologies and explanations were useless. He was dead. In his eyes, I saw, “Et tu, Brute?”
After 30 years of teaching, most of my students would say I was a really good teacher. I met a former student last year who said, “I loved your class. Your were my favorite teacher. You taught me how to write.”
She could testify at my murder trial. A character witness. Or maybe it’s manslaughter because I didn’t mean to kill him. Whatever decision the judge makes, it doesn’t matter. I’m guilty, and it haunts me. I relive it often. Thirty years of good teaching, and a few bad moments that won’t go away. I’m guilty as charged.
I’ve already been sentenced. Since I blamed myself as soon as I read about Lucas’ car accident. I wonder what he was thinking when he hit the tree. I’m sorry for killing you Lucas; I really am. I hope your mother is okay.
Author: Barry Hill
Image: Flickr/Bob Dass
Editor: Travis May