Teachers & Loss

This afternoon, I went into my principal's office for a moment to ask a routine question about a student.  We chit-chatted for a couple minutes and then he gave this dramatic sigh like I'd never heard come from him before and handed me a couple of pages stapled together.  I had no idea what was happening, but I took the pages and started reading.

The first was a student ID photo with some basic information -- printed out from our student information system.  While this was not my student, I was aware of him.  We are a very small school with a dozen teachers and one administrator; everyone knows everyone - literally.  At times we have as few as 25 students on campus.  This particular student had recently completed our program and returned to a comprehensive high school, but recently enough that the name and face was still familiar.

The second page was a news article giving some sketchy details of a murder.  I'm sure pretty much everyone can see where this is going.  Our student had been shot and killed.  The manner or method is pretty irrelevant, but suffice it to know that this 16-year old kid spent the last moments of his life bleeding to death in a parking lot.

I looked at my principal & before I could even say anything, he told me he hadn't been able to bring himself to read the article yet.  I've worked for the same administrator for the past 6+ years and this was probably the saddest moment we've ever shared.  I could tell he was trying to put on a good "leader face," but he had been jarringly affected.

The rest of my day has been painfully sad.  I've been thinking about all of the students I have lost over the years.  I've talked about this a bit before, but as a teacher, it's something that is constantly in the forefront.  Everyone is aware of those that have passed away, whether it be expected or unexpected, but there is always something about the loss of a young life that is so painful.

Since I have started teaching, I've always been in high-risk schools, and for some of my students, they take the phrase "high risk" a bit too literally.  From day one, I've had gang members and drug dealers in my classrooms sitting next to the future doctors and lawyers of America.  Generational poverty has driven thousands of my students to things I would never have dreamed of.  It doesn't change the legality of the issue, or make it right, but it's understandable.  Most of them never brought it into the classroom, so we always had some unspoken agreement that "If you behave and learn Shakespeare, I'll pretend I don't know you're a hard core gang member."  Usually it works.  And once in a while, one of them changes their stripes.

One of my very first blog posts (if anyone cares) is about one such student.  He was a white supremacist, and a general bad-ass.  One day, we had a blow out fight that ended in me telling him that I was tired of his crap and he was too smart to be acting like that.  He turned it around in school, or at least stopped being a pain.  But a couple years later, he came back and told me how that was a pivotal moment in his life.

However, just as often, I see news stories about my students -- and they are never good.  I know 5 students that have been murdered, two more have committed suicide, two car accidents, and (I believe) two have died of natural causes. That's 11 deaths in 8 1/2 years of teaching.  While it doesn't seem like a lot, it is.

Of course, that isn't the only way we lose students.  Endless numbers of them are lost due to depression, drug use, and gang activity.  They just stop coming to school.  As teachers, we feel that loss.  It must be like working in a hospice center - knowing so many are not going to make it out to the other side.  I know specifically of a handful that are living on the streets as drug addicts. And I can't even begin to tell you how many are in prison.

Out of curiosity, the principal and I recently checked a few names against the Nevada Department of Corrections rolls and found many current prisoners.  Most of them are under 21 - meaning they probably committed the crimes when they were still teens.  Bobby (another of my first blog posts) served almost 5 years for something he truly didn't do - while he was there, he did not participate, plan, or support the actions of his friends.  Two more were sentenced to 25+ years shortly after they turned 18.  Dozens more are currently serving time, including one 19 year old that made national news for his incredibly complex human trafficking pipeline from Las Vegas/SoCal to North Dakota's oil fields.

I write all of this - as depressing as it is - to show how emotionally wrecking teaching is.  I carry this loss with me every day, knowing any one of the young men and women sitting in front of me, learning to write and analyze, could be next.  I laugh and cry with them, I try to show them a world different from the one they know.  It's like what they say on "Intervention"... "there are a lot people in this room that love you and will fight like hell to get you back"  We are on a never-ending episode of Intervention with all of the crazy you can imagine, and then some.

But we still show up, knowing we are often fighting a losing battle.  We still fight.  As a matter of fact, I literally (at 9pm) just called a parent because this paragraph reminded me that there was a kid I hadn't seen in a while and I was worried (sadly, no answer).

Few people say teaching is easy, but even fewer realize how truly difficult it can be.


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