Dealing With Death

Year: 1

The week in which I learned about my student’s death was a haze. I did not know how to comfort my students or best control my classes. As I navigated the waters of a teacher working with grieving students, I tried myself to grieve. I felt oddly and uncomfortably functional. I expected to fall apart, but did not. It took me several days to understand how deeply not okay I was – not spending time with friends, not exercising, sleeping far more than necessary, and not really doing anything at all outside of work. I’d go home, eat, and sort of wander around or lay in bed until it was even close to an acceptable time to sleep. I repeated that process for the week leading up to her funeral.

I didn’t really talk to anyone about her. I had a few conversations, here or there, but I never opened up fully. A few days before the wake, I emailed a former high school teacher of mine, Mr. Lee. He was one of my favorite teachers; I’d considered him a mentor as a teenager, and I remembered that he’d taught in an inner-city school like mine. In his reply, Mr. Lee offered to call me and discuss everything.

That conversation was very likely the reason I made it through the following weeks. I sat on the floor of my bedroom, telling my former teacher about it all: my students, the school, the level of trauma and poverty in the area surrounding my school, my student who died, the wake and funeral that I would soon attend. I cried, a lot, as my teacher talked about his experiences working with similar kids. We discussed coping skills and how to move forward in the classroom, and for as long as I live, I will remember him saying to me repeatedly: “They may not act like it, Torey, but they need you. These kids need you really fucking badly right now.” It would be the only time I felt comfortable enough to cry about her death and about the overwhelming stress I felt; it would be the only time I would have a full, difficult, necessary conversation about an impossibly painful experience.

The week following my student’s death did not offer me much opportunity to process and grieve. On the day of her funeral, one week after my receiving the news, teachers in Arizona called for a statewide strike. I chose to attend the funeral rather than go to the strikes. I stood with our school’s principals, as well as a few other teachers who wanted to join us. While teachers around the state were preparing for protests at the capitol, I stood at the funeral, desperately hoping that never again would I hear the cry of a mother and father who have lost their young daughter.

The strike lasted almost two full weeks. Following my student’s funeral, I found myself swept along a current of protests, coffee with teachers to talk about the strike, many, many conversations regarding politics in the education system. I did not speak about her in those following weeks, trying to focus on the strikes, worrying about the safety of my employment as a first-year teacher. The clearest benefit of this strike to me, personally, was the way it shoved me out of my zombie-like state I’d been in prior to the strikes. By the time the strikes ended, though, I just remember a powerful sense of relief that I could go back to my classroom with the students I’d last seen on funeral grounds. I wanted to be back in the classroom. I wanted to finally end that year.

I don’t think I have more than one or two conversations about my student after the teacher strikes. Those conversations, if they could be called that, consisted of a sentence or two on my part before moving on to a different topic. Until about midsummer, when the panic attacks began, I did not realize how much I’d kept buried.

I would wake up in the middle of the night, sweating or crying or both, the lingering scenes of my dreams still present. The dreams were almost always the same, with a changing cast: a funeral, seeing the casket, seeing people standing at the lowering of the casket. The dreams became increasingly difficult: it began with family members, but by the last dream, it was me in the casket. Until I woke up from that dream – a panicked, terrifying confrontation of my own mortality – I didn’t realize how little I’d addressed the death of my student.

The day after I learned of her death, I went to my tattoo artist. On my wrist now sits an M., the first letter of my student’s first name. She always talked about my tattoos – joking once with a friend that their parents would let them get tattoos in eighth grade, trying to convince me they were telling the truth – and it felt an appropriate way to honor and remember her. It is also a daily reminder that life is fragile, not guaranteed. It is a reminder that, for all the times they test me and frustrate me and try to truly cause me pain, my students are, at their core, children who need help and support. M. reminds me every day to be a little kinder, and a little more present and appreciative of the time I do have every day.

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