I got a message this morning that I’ve gotten too many times over the years as a teacher. They all start the same way: “I am so sorry to tell you…” or “Did you hear about…” or “I thought you’d want to know…” Like so many, many other things that we teachers can never be prepared for in our college classes or professional development seminars or even just through years of experience, losing students is just part of loving students.
Her name is Lisa. She was the kid who did everything well, yet everyone still really liked her. She went to college on a full scholarship, started doing drugs, and then started really doing drugs. Her mom asked me if I’d go talk to her, and I dropped everything, drove to her college, and staged a one-woman intervention. I couldn’t convince her to come home with me that day, but she did go into rehab a couple of weeks after I visited her. She overdosed later that summer. Her mom gave me her picture, laminated with a Bible verse on the back. I put it on my Christmas tree every year, up on top alongside ornaments for my dad, my grandparents, and my nephew: my personal angels.
His name is Brian. The smile on that kid was epic. He died in a stupid accident that left everyone reeling with the senselessness of it and the seemingly random finger of fate that just happened to point to him. All of his classmates felt mortality’s shadow pass over them, and they were shaken.
Her name is Brittany. She hated my class. I thought it was because she hated me, but I realized it was because my class made her feel stupid. My biggest accomplishment that year— maybe ever in my whole career — was finding a book that she liked enough to read the whole thing. After that, she kept asking for more books. She died while out jogging when a lady who was eating her breakfast in her car on her way to work hit her.
His name is Mekkhi. He was killed when someone shot him. I got angry when I overheard other teachers talking about how he was into bad stuff. They made it sound like he had it coming or that it was inevitable. He wrote beautiful poetry.
His name is Taylor. He gobbled up life and kept everyone wondering what he would do next. He was killed in a motorcycle accident. The school’s football team dedicated a season to him.
Her name is Catherine. She was the quiet kid in the back row. I didn’t worry about her much because she did everything she was supposed to do. I just figured she was an introvert. She hanged herself three days after graduation.
His name is Jordan. He wasn’t my student, but I taught his girlfriend. He was a soccer player. He died of cancer. Two of my best teacher friends who did teach and coach him went to see him a lot when he was in the final weeks of his illness. After his death, we had a memorial service on the field at school with a candlelight walk and balloons.
Today her name is Anna. She was a tiny little dynamo who evolved from my student to my tailgating buddy before Gator games. For four years, she would come by at least a couple of times each season and visit with me. We were Facebook friends. She was found dead in her car outside her home.
I know the metrics. I’ve been teaching for twenty-five years and worked with well over 3,000 kids. Teenagers and young adults are fragile creatures. They die from all kinds of things both natural and unnatural. I’m probably fortunate that my list is relatively short. I have a friend whose teaching environment is very different from mine, and she loses at least one kid every year. Often more.
When I first started teaching, I threw myself open wide. I spent time with the kids, got to know them, talked with them between classes, went to their games, performances outside of school, and graduation parties. I met them for Shakespeare in the Park, coffee house study sessions, and home-from-college dinners. They babysat my kids and became part of my family. There are several kids I taught in the mid-1990’s with whom I’m still close. We crossed the bridge into friendship, navigating the awkward transition to comfortably calling me by my first name.
It was Lisa who taught me that boundaries aren’t a betrayal. They aren’t a barrier to an effective and meaningful relationship. They are simply a way to protect at least a little bit of my heart and soul from the pain that comes from loving and losing someone else’s kid. My personal space is now pretty much filled with my own children and the incredible, terrible, crushing, embracing, terrifying, beautiful love that I have for each of them. Losing a student makes it too easy — way too easy — to peek into the abyss of “what if” and imagine the math of probability and statistics reaching into my own home.
Those boundaries haven’t made me cold or callous. I’m not hardened or stand-offish. I just try to maintain at least a little distance. I love them all and do everything I can for them, but there’s a “within reason” caveat that keeps a buffer around my heart. Every year there is one, maybe two, who pass through that membrane and become children of my heart. I believe in the numbers, though, and figure that one or two is way better than 150 each year. Plus, I really can’t help myself. We teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but sometimes it just happens. The best I can say is that the boundaries work most of the time, allowing me to grieve and mourn loss without letting it absolutely destroy me. Or, maybe the walls that have risen are simply the scar tissue from past destruction, past loss.
But today it’s Anna, and my heart didn’t live in any shadows when I helped her write her college essays and jumped up and down in a laughing, cheering embrace the day she found out she’d been accepted to UF. I’ll find out when the service will be, and I’ll go sit in one of the back rows with other people who aren’t family or friends. I’ll speak briefly to her devastated parents, mindful not to take up too much time as I tell them that she was a lovely girl, a sweet, funny person whom I’ve remembered long after she left my classroom. I’ll hug her classmates who will see me and get transported back to their own teenaged selves in my presence. We will reminisce and then part ways once again, and I’ll hope that another phone call, another Facebook message, another tweet won’t draw us back together.