I always feared the first funeral I would attend would be for one of my students. Even harder was the second funeral, too shortly after, for the same reason. There can be, perhaps, no better weight to hold our reluctant, squinting faces wide-eyed to realities of life than the teaching profession.
During my second year as an English teacher and track assistant coach, I was rocked by the deaths of these students. Statistically, it’s inevitable, but math gave no relief when hundreds of lives are daily woven with mine and suddenly Drake and Tyler bright patches were ripped from our school’s fabric.
Drake’s ridiculous smile followed me all morning after his death. Scenes played out in my mind: acting out Grimm’s fairy tales and his addition of Red Cap’s physical retribution to the evil Wolf, which infamously became known as the “Red Cap Slap.” Sad grins accompanied remembering the times when he picked up my Frodo Baggins cardboard cutout, held it to his own hobbit-like face, and reduced us to tears of laughter.
Drake was gone; there was nothing I could do: helpless until some of his closest friends came to me in remembrance of a love poem he had helped write that was voted class favorite. I found the poem and gave it to them to read at his wake and to relive Drake one last time.
Too soon, another former student and nationally ranked track athlete died in a car wreck. The blow was even harder. I remembered Tyler’s quiet, kind way, helping him revise a senior paper, and just the day before watching him jump his last few hurdles admiring his tight, quick form. Our track team was emptied and hollowed 400 runner’s lungs. It was passing of his hopes of state championships, junior Olympics, and college—it left us reeling for air. As track team trailed Tyler into our high school gym for his funeral, emptiness of heart met with the tight aching in our heaving chests and squeezed tear after tear from our eyes.
After Tyler left us, we held one last memorial in his honor. We timed his “last race” and posthumously clocked the :37 he had always dreamed of running in the 300 hurdles. I had the honor of reading A. E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young,” a painfully accurate, but appropriate honor of Tyler’s “last race.”
I believe teaching has taught me about grief, but it has also taught me that the profession is not about standardized tests, curriculum guidelines, or Average Yearly Progress. In an age of policies, budget cuts, bureaucracy, and school scandals, there is a reason to believe in education, and I surprised by the joy that it was here: in relationships and in these written words that speak to our deepest sorrows and give us hope and memory. This I believe and that is why I teach.
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