The pep rally was threatening to be a boring one. Spring sports, 5 bazillion student names to be read aloud… but if anyone could save it, it was my emcee crew. I like to put on a show and my emcees were the showrunners. At our school, this group is the one that runs the pep rallies and holds giant flags with the school name on it and are basically the spirit leaders. We had an enormous task of trying to keep the entire school population entertained for an hour while essentially reciting the school directory. And we did it. Somehow we pulled it off.
I remember looking through the crowd to my seniors. All of them so full of life, creeping closer to graduation. Every year these kids become my joy. I call them “my kids”. I was their Aunty, Mama, whatever nickname they wanted. Some just called me Sara, trying on the adult world of calling people by their first name. I was fine with that. That is the relationship that I have with them.
The next day was one of those Saturdays where I should be getting stuff done, but instead decided that a visit to the bookstore was time better spent. My daughter begged to go to the multi-level Barnes and Noble in Smyrna. I was lingering in the astrology section when my phone rang with an unknown number. I don’t normally answer the phone in those cases but I did that day.
“Sara, this is Bob.”
Bob. Bob? Who…oh my principal. What the hell did I do?
“Sara, one of your students committed suicide this morning.”
The sounds around me faded. I could only hear my principal telling me the basics. Jacob. He asked me if there were any students that he needed to personally reach out to that day and my mind was a blank. I couldn’t function, couldn’t find the shelf to put the book that I was holding back, it was so important that I get that book back in the right spot. I thanked him and went in search of my daughter, blissfully unaware in the children’s section.
The rest of the day I spent in various positions curled up on my bed. I trawled through social media, waiting for the RIPs to surface. It was eerily quiet out there. I called my best friend, worrying about how to face Monday. It was going to be the hardest day of my teaching career to date.
In my thirteen years of teaching, I have lost some. One year I handed a girl her diploma on a Saturday and she was dead by Monday. A car accident, youthful indiscretion with a two ton vehicle. Her best friend watched her die from another car. I taught that friend the next year. She was changed. She had seen death.
But this was different. It was fraught with the implications of suicide. The mystery of it all. The questions, the stigma. The helplessness of those left behind. I wasn’t trained for this. I was prepared to go into full Mama mode.
Sunday was Super Bowl Sunday. I tried to distract myself with by watching the Kitten Bowl with my daughter. Late that night, one lone memorial video popped up online. It was made by his best friend, one of the school’s talented filmmakers. I saw a side of Jacob that I hadn’t really seen in class. The Jacob I knew had been quiet and reserved, not in a sullen way, but in a way that just wanted to be unobtrusive. I saw a laughing, singing boy. I didn’t sleep much that night.
I rolled into school and dreaded the moment that students would come in. One girl came in early to my 1st period and she hadn’t heard and I was the one who had to tell her. I fumbled through that and showed her where the kleenex box was in case anyone needed it. An emergency faculty meeting was scheduled for 8am, and I headed down to gather and get information and possibly some strength.
I found my teacher neighbor, Krista, who taught him last year. We sat with arms entwined in the glare of the theater’s florescent house lights, clutching tissues. Bob spoke to us through tears, gave us a template to read to the class, and advised us to do what we do best which is be there for the kids. He introduced a lady from the county, a grief counselor. She was very matter of fact, almost offensively so. I rationalized at the moment that that was her job and she must have to go around all the time to different schools with people she doesn’t know, offering her services. I supposed that she had to adopt that front or she would be a miserable wreck all the time.
Back in my classroom, the activity seemed almost normal and I was terrified that maybe I was going to be the one breaking this awful news to a room full of senior girls (and our one lone male in the class). I printed out the template that had been emailed to us. I walked over to the computer cart. A sense of deja vu crept over me.
Earlier in the year, we lost a beloved teacher and coach to cancer. Just like this morning, I stood in front of my first period AP Lang 12 class with an emailed template. I teared up a little reading that one and I was nervous because it was the first time I had announced a death to my students. Now, I’m an old pro at it. But this time…I had to breathe. My hands shook. I stopped, I started. I finally got it all out.
Dead silence greeted me.
What the hell do I do with this?
“Y’all. I don’t do a lot of things right as a teacher. I take way too long to get your essays back. I’m imperfect in so many ways. But the one thing I do right is love you all. You have to know that I am here for you. Please know that. I am always here and I care so, so much.
There’s an assignment if you need something to focus on. If you want to do it, fine. If not, if you want to stare at the wall, lay your head down, come talk to me, leave the room, whatever. You do what you need to do today. I’m going to sit over here behind my desk and stare. No, first I’m going to go get some caffeine so I can make it through this day. I’ll be right back.”
I walked out the door, out into the harsh lights of the hallway from the womb of my warmly dim classroom. There wasn’t enough caffeine to get me through the day.
During second period, I was out wandering and came across one of my senior boys that was in Jacob’s class with me. He came to me and I immediately gave him a hug.
“I just couldn’t sit in class anymore.”
“Do you want to just come hang out in my room for awhile? No one is in there.”
He only shook his head in a silent yes. I walked him to my room, pulled up two chairs across from one another, and didn’t ask anything of him. His head was down and for a minute there were brief spasms of grief, and some audible sniffles. Then he broke his silence.
“No one knew. No one knew.”
Fourth period came. Jacob’s class.
As promised, our principal came right at the beginning of class, with the county grief counselor in tow. He spoke of the general support that was there for each student. Then the county lady was introduced. She started off in the same way but then veered sharply in her sharp and high pitched southern twang.
“Does anybody have an memories they would like to share about Jacob?”
The class, mostly males, was silent. I could have predicted that. What I couldn’t have predicted was the her next line.
“Is it because he was kind of quiet and kept to himself that you don’t have any memories of him?”
I don’t know if my mouth was agape, but I do know that I turned ever so slowly to look at her with a real “what the fuck” look on my face.
Later, after they left, one of the students that sat at Jacob’s table came over to me.
“We didn’t want to talk to her.We didn’t know her.”
“I know,” I replied. “I don’t blame you.”
“I’ve been thinking about how you must feel right now, as his teacher. Like, maybe there could have been something you had seen.”
Obviously. But coming from a student, that hit me like a sack of concrete in my stomach. What could I have done? Even his best friends had no idea. He had just been accepted by his dream school. He came in and did his work and was quiet and how many hundreds of kids just like that had passed through my doors?
The day of the burial was cold and Georgia got a rare chance of snow in the forecast. Krista and I rode together from school. We had never actually attended a student funeral before. Pulling up into the parking line we saw a large group of students huddled together at the top of the hill overlooking his grave site.
“Should we go up to them or what?” asked Krista.
“I guess we can walk up halfway and if they want to stand with us they can? I don’t know.”
We stopped halfway up, and like a flock, they all moved together, in a mass, and headed for us. I just started holding students, male , female, crying or numb.
“We didn’t know if we were supposed to go ahead and stand around the tent. We don’t know what to do,” said one student.
Krista and I looked at each other. Clearly we were being looked to as the adults. We had to be the rocks. But there is never anything wrong with saying you don’t know something. We began walking tentatively towards the site and as we did, the family pulled up with the hearse. Watching 17 and 18 year old boys carry a casket is something I want to add to my never again list. Watching a mother bear the grief of a dead son is another.
It was a Jewish ceremony and for awhile I was lost in the symbolism and simplicity of the service. “Practical Grieving” was the only way I could describe it to people later. Every gesture had a purpose and that was assisting those left behind. The kaddish was haunting and as it floated through the air, punctuated by groans of ultimate pain from the family, snow began to fall. Flakes swirled through the air, landing on shivering teenage girls, settling over us all. Meanwhile, I watched my boys shovel the ceremonial filling in of the dirt. The symbolism of the sound of the dirt hitting the casket did not need to be explained. The thud echoed in our ears.
The rabbi asked us to form two lines which the family would walk between to leave the grave. My worst and clearest memory was of that mother, that poor mother, being supported by loved ones and desperately sobbing and thanking us all for coming to her boy’s funeral. Her grief seemed bottomless.
I was thinking about all of this the other day, one of the last days of the school year. The seniors were done, graduation was upon us, and Krista, as yearbook advisor, had sat aside a book to give to Jacob’s family. It was early on a nearly empty day at school and I got first crack at it. I sat for ten minutes staring at the pristine page. I began a sentence. I complained to Krista about how difficult it was.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have things to say. It’s that it wasn’t appropriate for the yearbook. Because what I needed was to write a letter to him.
I failed you. I thought that I had always made it clear to my students that I cared about them, that I was there for them, but I know in my heart that not everyone feels that way about me. The loud ones, the ones who feel the immediate bond of kindred spirits, the troublemakers, the class ditchers.. all these kinds get more than their share of attention. The quiet and self-sufficient ones in class, the ones that do what they should and never demand anything, they, I fear, may not know the intensity of my love for my students. The ones that feel the bond, they obviously feel it. The ones that fuck up, they even get to feel it, when I plead with them to get their life together. Because of you, I will try to be a better teacher. I will try to always touch base with all of my students. I thought by always greeting you guys at the door and smiling and saying Good Morning that I was doing a good thing, but it is clear that it is not enough. I was caught up in my own life, with its own turmoil and confusion, and while that is not a crime, I have to remember that I have been gifted by Spirit with a great task and honor which is to guide young souls. I am, in essence, one of the many earthly angels that we trust our kids to through the day. I know, I know, I know that I am not responsible for what you did, but the possibility that I missed a clue, a sign, will haunt me the rest of my days. I will have to learn to let it go; maybe talk to you at the top of one of my mountains out west, ask your forgiveness. I can only hope that i hear you this time.