In the beginning, you don’t really know what the hardest part about teaching will be. Sometimes you think it is all the papers–so many papers!–that you have to constantly grade. Other times you think it is the lack of motivation from so many students; you don’t just share knowledge and inspire learning, you sell learning, you peddle it, shine it up, and make it pretty. You have to be on one hundred percent of the time because God forbid you have an off day, you’re a teacher and these kids need you to do a better job.
There are so many hard things about teaching, but the hardest–hands down–is when a student passes away. Because this? This shouldn’t happen. Kids aren’t supposed to die and you just know so many kids that even though it’s bound to happen (that’s how you rationalize it in your head late at night when you’re just trying to get some sleep and you still can’t believe another student died), it’s still shocking and hard every single time.
Sometimes you get lulled into a fake sense of safety, you haven’t lost a student in a few years! you say. You start forgetting that students die. You don’t think as much about parents burying their kids. You put your guard back down; kids are just kids and they don’t die when they’re too young.
But then it happens again (it always happens again) and you are reminded that this life isn’t guaranteed and kids die and teachers die and it’s normally when you feel the most safe and secure that it happens. It’s when you’re not looking that death comes again.
The hardest thing about teaching is the relationships, there are just so many relationships. The ones that are a joy and the ones that just get under your skin. The relationships that wear you down all year long and the relationships that are color on a completely colorless day. But you remember that all those relationships, all those students, are someone’s kids. They go home at night to families and friends and pets and beds. They are someone’s whole world and what seems hard on some days seems less hard when you look at them through that lens.
And then sometimes they die. They die because lung transplants finally give up. They die because of car accidents. They die because they stepped off the sidewalk at the wrong time. They die in their sleep on a regular Saturday night. And sometimes they die because they don’t want to live anymore, they decide that life is too hard, and they take their own lives.
So you go to their showings and you stand there awkwardly because death is hard and young death is even harder. You feel out of place and guilty because you get to leave this place eventually and those parents, those parents never get to leave. You see other kids, other students, trying to cope with the loss and you feel helpless because even adults don’t know what to say or how to act. Death makes us all feel, no matter what age, helpless and vulnerable.
Later you add the kids’ pictures to your bulletin board and hang their funeral announcements on your wall so you can remember them. It’s not like you ever really forget them, but you do this because you can’t throw their stuff away. You don’t know what else to do and this feels like something, this feels like action.
Days and weeks and months and years go by and you talk about them more than other students because you feel like it’s your duty, it’s your responsibility, to them as their teacher to never forget them. You talk about them at lunch with your colleagues and you have flashbacks of them sitting in your class as you assign their old textbook to a new student. You see old yearbooks and you pause just a moment longer over those students’ pictures, trying to read it in their eyes, trying to see if they knew or if they looked different and you just missed it. Did they feel their too-soon death?
The answer is no, always no. No one knows. No one see it, feels it, anticipates it. That’s what they say makes life so sweet, that you never really know. But sometimes life isn’t sweet. Sometimes it’s painful and sad and kids die and there are no right answers or quick fixes. Sometimes it just hurts and teaching is hard and that’s all there is.