There are students who never graduate- not those that drop out or can’t make the grade. I’m talking about those students who, due to varying circumstances, pass away before they’ve walked across the stage. This is an emotional hazard of being in education, especially at the high school age level. The rate of deaths due to driving accidents, suicides, and accidental deaths is significantly higher between the ages of 16 and 20 than at any other time in life. After 15 years of teaching, I know to look at the sea of faces the first day of school and silently pray, “Not this year”. The likelihood of one of those precious young lives, looking at me with less than enthusiasm about having to write a geometric proof or take a quiz, may be cut short before the end of the school year arrives. It is heartbreaking and an ever present reminder to be less concerned with the grade or the class management, and more aware of the soul in the seat, struggling or joyful, alive with promise and the excitement of coming into their own, fighting with demons on their shoulders, tormentors without and within.
I carry each student that I have lost while I was their teacher in my heart, tucking them into the little hole that was created and vowing that I will never forget the memory of them. My first was a young man who drowned during the summer. My second was a young lady who was working on an early morning paper delivery route and rolled her pick up truck. My third was a young man who had survived being hit by a train, walked with a prosthetic leg, with dreams of being a physical therapist, who was thrown from a truck trying to pass on a hill. My fourth was a young man with a heart defect who died on the basketball court during spring break. He had given me the only present I’d received in years as a high school teacher and would come in my room just to say hi, even after no longer being a current student in the class. Recently a senior student passed away. I have only been back at my current school for 4 weeks and had not had her in class, but she had wandered into my room several times to chat, apparently she couldn’t resist the twinkle lights I had hung up. She told me if there was an award for the best decorated room, I should get it. These babies, dying just as they are about to spread their wings and fly, makes the loss of a life that much more tragic and difficult to rationalize.
More often I have students that suddenly disappear, moving on to another school district. An empty seat that remains vacant until I realize a corresponding blank in the roll has appeared where their name used to be. So many leave without getting a chance to say goodbye. Whisked away by circumstances beyond their control, often taking them as much by surprise as myself. I say a prayer for them on their way, hoping they are happy, that their new science teacher is patient with them, learns to ask about their favorite dog and their favorite sports team.
Each class period that ends and I wish them a good afternoon- that may be my goodbye. Oh, children, I wish you knew the tears that your teachers shed for you. We worry about and love you more than some of you will ever know, and your presence is missed. I strive to make that evident when I teach you, when I try to find a connection other than school to let you know I’m interested in you as a person; that I care. Rest in peace my forever students, and god-speed my former students, it gives me such joy to hear how you’ve gotten to succeed, and become, and live.