27 February 2012

At Death's Classroom Door

I woke up this morning thinking about all of the students who died when I was in school. When those events happened, they were sad, but somehow didn't seem out of the ordinary. Keep in mind, I had 59 people in my graduating class, so you can imagine what a small district we were. When I was in junior high, death came for the older brother of my friend across the street. He and three others had been out partying and were in a car accident. I remember that he hung on for a few days, but that was all. My friend and her family moved away after that. And then there was the little sister of another friend who was present when her boyfriend was shot at a party. Drunk teens didn't realize the shotgun being waved around was loaded. She ended up being spattered in the process. I don't think anyone went to jail. A friend of my family was in a car accident---everyone was sober, but she was an inexperienced driver on the highway and turned the car around in a not-so-safe area. She, too, hung on for a few weeks. I remember getting to be a senior and realizing no one in our class had died yet. But it happened to us, too. A new kid---I don't even know his name now or how he was killed---died a few weeks into the school year. There were others along the way, too...and I don't remember anything ever said at school by the adults. I assume they must have talked among themselves and decided to just keep moving forward for us.

It was early in my teaching career when I had to deal with the death of a colleague. I was teaching summer school...and the math teacher would go visit her parents in another town each weekend. One early Monday morning, she was ejected from her Jeep when she overcorrected after running off the road. It seemed so wrong to have to tell students that their math teacher wasn't going to be at school today...or ever again.

And there have been my own students, too. Last year alone, I lost three former students---two to illness, one to suicide (or as the obituary worded it, he "lost his battle with depression"). But I recall the few who died while in high school...getting to see the impact from a different side of the desk. As unpleasant as always.

I suppose that all of these things have been on my mind because last week, in the classroom of someone I used to work with, a little boy (appears to have accidentally) shot a young girl. They're in third grade, and their teacher used her first aid skills to save the girl's life. When you hear all the stories of violence at school---intentional or not---there is always some level of removal. It's another town...another state. Until now, it's no one I've ever known. Out of all the ways I've seen death touch a school, I've never seen it like this. I can't help but think of the scared children and this former co-worker in a situation she never thought she'd ever have to be a part of. I don't know how you find the strength to go back into that classroom the next day and be strong for your kiddos again, but I'm proud of her. I may not be able to do anything to help, but perhaps I can let her know that I'm thinking of her and wishing her strength and peace for the days and weeks ahead.

While there's no way to keep Death away from the classroom door, I'm afraid there will be a lot more times in the future where I wish I could.

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