Finding the Balance

Year: 2

Today is a Wednesday. We’re officially halfway through the week.

Within the last week, there have been seven fights in the high school of my district. In my school, there have been two or three fights. One student has been hit by a car. Two of my students have been sitting through in-school suspension. I’ve given four lunch detentions for behavioral disruptive. Generally, students have been highly fidgety, emotional, and disruptive.

Today is a Wednesday. We’re halfway through the week.

This is not normal for my school district, but if you were to spread out all of these incidents throughout a school year, this would not be normal for the average school district’s full year. I work in a district that is in an area of town with high poverty, high trauma, and all the cyclical symptoms of high poverty and trauma within families. This, of course, drastically affects students’ health and behavior.

One of the difficulties of teaching in a school like this is that, in addition to the normal difficulties of teaching generally, you’re confronted regularly with two problems: the problem of incessant worrying and the problem of normalizing. Last year, I had the problem of incessant worrying; I’d go home, thinking about the trauma my students held, feeling guilty about my safe apartment and my healthy diet and all the things I had that my students did not.

This year, I have the problem of normalizing all of these terrible traumas. I still worry about my students and still think about how I can help them, but I have stood close to some extraordinary pain. I have seen students wait for their mothers to be possibly deported. I have seen students under the stress of extreme poverty. I have a seen a student die. I am embedded in this world, this environment, every day, and I cannot help these students to the extent that I want to help them. I regularly have to remind myself, this year, that my students’ behavior is due to these terrible traumas. I have to remind myself that not every school would see this level of trauma in children.

It feels to me that these are two ends of the same spectrum. To worry constantly, and fixate on the pain my students endure, is to drain myself of the energy I need to function well on a daily basis. To normalize it is to dull the natural emotional reactions to witnessing such a trauma. I don’t know what the healthy balance is between these two ends. I don’t know where I should be in the spectrum, or how long it will take me to get there.

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.

The Death of a Student

Year: 1

Last year, in the last few months before summer, one of my students died. She was twelve years old.

It’s been about five months since her death, and I still don’t quite know how to talk about it. I was never prepared to encounter such a difficulty. I’ve been told by many people that it’s rare, and several teachers I know have never experienced this. It is, without a doubt, the worst part of this job.

One of the teachers in my department had been through this, with two different students, and we spoke a lot during that first week. During one of those conversations, she said, “With this job, you don’t just sign up to teach them. You sign up to love them.” That’s always stayed with me, and has always felt particularly powerful to me. When there is the death of a student, it will be painful, regardless of who that student was. It doesn’t even need to be a student in your class; at the end of the day, your job is to teach and protect kids, and one of the kids in your school is gone. A lot of teachers in my school grieved that week, even without having known my student.

I was given the news first, being one of her teachers, and had about an hour to process the information before I had to tell my next class the information. Other teachers offered to cover my class if I thought I wouldn’t be able to get through the news. I turned them down. It wasn’t that I was confident I would be okay; I just didn’t want someone other than their teacher giving them news like that.

We gave the news in the following class, so that all students would find out at once, rather than by gossip spreading. It was excruciatingly difficult; most kids, by the afternoon, were already in tears when class began. I decided to take give the day to the students, telling them they could work on missing or late assignments if they felt up to it, but really giving them the space and time to process the information.

That day was painful. The remainder of the week was messy, hazy. I did not know if I was grieving too much, or too little. I did not know if I was handling the information very well or poorly, and did not know if I was helping or hurting the students with how I treated class. I felt, in the days following her death, like I’d forgotten how to teach. All I knew how to do was tell my students I cared about them.

Dealing with her death has lingered with me, and I am still learning how to process and heal. How to teach, how to be in control of the classroom in the wake of such an event, was a learning experience for me. Learning how to take care of myself when I felt suddenly overwhelmed with responsibility for the students, as if again for the first time, was enormously difficult. I will likely write separately about all of those in turn, as I learn how to write about them. For anyone who may have experienced, or may be experiencing currently, the death of a student in their school: I am sorry, and I hope you are okay. Take care of your kids, but also take care of yourself. Remember that you are allowed to grieve, too, in so many ways, in the ways that feel right for you to grieve. Let yourself be human. It will get better with time.