Sunday, March 24, 2013
Not a Peep...
I hate Easter.
I cringe every time I see a jellybean, Peep or Cadbury egg and it has nothing to do with the religiousness of the holiday.
In 2006 my step dad, Stan, was finally going to retire from his job as an assistant manager at a restaurant that worked him too much and cared too little. It was the night before Easter, and just hours before his shift was to end, he had a massive heart attack and died at work.
The weeks that followed were a blur of funeral arrangements, legal and financial paperwork and the emotional toll of sudden and tragic loss. It was horrible, but what struck me most was that Stan had so many plans for after he retired, it was as if he had put his life on hold until that day. He even had a countdown calendar to mark each day until his retirement, his freedom. Little did he know... Countdown calendars still unnerve me.
Less than a month later, just as we were starting to redefine "normal", my grandmother died. My mom, still reeling from the loss of her husband now had to deal with the loss of her mother as the cycle began all over and it felt like a little cloud descended and followed me around for the next year.
The day I found out about my grandmother, it was too late to call a sub to cover for me at school, so I went. The kids in my first block class had cut me a break since hearing about Stan, but when the principal came to my classroom that morning to tell me to go home, the kids heard why. They were a tough group of juniors and seniors and we had good days and bad days as a class, but even they understood how deeply these tragedies affected me.
When I returned a week later, the class very cautiously presented me with a lovely silk flower arrangement and a card they all signed. I say very cautiously because they were unsure how to approach the topic, and me, in my very fragile state. What do you say when someone has experienced that much loss? Their empathy and compassion were so overwhelming that as they asked me questions I broke one of the commandments of teaching, Thou shalt not cry. I lost it, and they surrounded me in a group hug that left many of them crying too.
I try to be the tough love teacher, and I am usually all business in the classroom, but the kids see right through me. They know I have high standards and expectations, it is rumored I am one of the hardest teachers in the school, but it usually only takes a week or two before I hear one of them say after they have been reprimanded, "Yeah, but you love us Ms. D." I never deny it, because it is true, but I often wonder what it is that gives me away. How do you teach without love?
From that point on, the class kept a close eye on me. There were times when I came to school with that cloud hanging overhead and just wanted to get to class without talking to anyone. I couldn't get through the hallway without a "Good morning, Ms.D." just like I had done to them all year. The kids refused to let me ignore them. If I wasn't standing at the door when the kids changed classes, they wanted to know why. If I looked sad, I was hugged. Even if I wasn't sad, I was hugged. I can honestly say that they were the reason I made it through the rest of the school year. They pulled me out of my funk and helped me to remember that when you teach, you have to leave your problems at the door.
Was that my best year of teaching? Certainly not. However, that year my students learned more about empathy, compassion and grit than they would have learned in one of my normal classes. They realized that education is a team sport that requires both students and teacher to be invested and responsible for each other because teaching and learning are fluid concepts and on any given day students and teachers could be doing both. However, before any content is taught, you have to deal with the other issues that may prevent teaching and learning from happening. That year, my class learned that family is more than just DNA, and I was reminded that people often have much more going on underneath the surface than they let on.
Thank goodness for my students and their early intervention, because five months after losing my grandmother, right after the start of the new school year, my grandfather died. Three deaths in six months left me wondering how much sadness a person could endure, but I realized that life was short and that I had a choice, stay miserable and let the cloud keep following me, or get busy living. I loved my job and the kids, and couldn't imagine a more important and fulfilling profession, but I knew I was in a very comfortable rut and hadn't grown in a while. I needed to challenge myself, because I didn't want to die without squeezing every drop out of life that I could. That meant growing, so I went back to school so that I could continue to learn and explore.
The story has a somewhat happy ending, or maybe I should just say that we all learned some valuable lessons. Even though it was years ago now and they say that time heals all wounds, I always feel a profound sense of sadness at this time of year and wish I could just hibernate until Easter is over.
What this time of year does is remind about the importance of building relationships, because those who take the time to really see you, and not just the façade you present to the world, are priceless beyond measure. As a teacher, I know that my students face challenges outside the classroom that are difficult to deal with no matter what your age, including divorce, homelessness, abuse, illness, death and hunger. As adults, we need to remember that kids brains are wired differently, and for teenagers whose brains aren't fully developed with hormones that are running rampant, these issues are magnified. Poverty and tragedy are not disabilities and we should have high expectations for all of our students, we just need to remember that some of them are just going to need a little more help to get there. You can't teach them until you reach them.