I’m not going to pretend he was my favorite student, or even that we had a particularly close relationship. His attendance wasn’t great, and, quite frankly, his focus wasn’t either. He was a student that very cheerfully handled his redirections, and would tell me to “chill.” To which I’m sure I responded with something about how I “would never be chill about his education.” Was I his favorite teacher? Nope. Did I have high hopes and dreams and expectations for him? Yep. I was his teacher, after all, even if not his favorite. I was not a perfect teacher for him, and I didn’t do everything right. I know that, and will learn from that. But, I still showed up, ready to teach him, ready to fight for him—ready to fight for them all. It wasn’t enough, but it was what I could give.
“18-year-old killed…” That was the headline of the first article I read about the shooting. The photos of him show his height and stocky build. They use “18-year-old” to make it seem like he was an adult. Which, technically, he was. But he really wasn’t. The articles speculate about gang activity, and it all clicks into place for people. “Ah. It is sad, and he is very young. But that’s what you get for hanging with the wrong crowd.” The assumptions and speculations abound, and people might acknowledge that it is sad, but there is still this air of understanding, almost. As if this was to be expected, because, I mean, look at his picture! He is big, and tall, and hangs out in a gang. It’s his own fault. Now, people might not go that far, but there is certainly a hint of that in their words.
The boy the papers don’t show, however, was the one that roamed the halls of our school. He was goofy, and smiley, and as laid back as it gets. Like I said, I’m not going to claim that he was the most focused student in the world, but very few students are that student. He tried to do his work more often than he didn’t, he tried to help out classmates when he could, and he wasn’t a student inclined to curse you out. He wasn’t an angel, or a saint. He was more than just a gang member, or a thug. He was a kid. A good kid, even. A kid who was involved with things far beyond his years. A kid who had friends, who loved basketball, who loved joking around. A kid who will be missed by a lot of people, myself included.
I have experienced loss before, and each one brought a slightly different pang. This is my first time experiencing the pain of losing a student, and it certainly has a sting all its own.
It isn’t just a sadness for this student, which is certainly part of it, but it is a sadness for all the students that it has been, and could be, through the years. A sadness for the hurts that exist in the world, and the wrongs that take away kids who are forgotten as individuals as they become statistics.
I think part of the sadness is also tinged with a little guilt. The guilt of knowing that you were one of the adults in his life who was supposed to help keep him safe. You were supposed to prepare him for the “real world,” and give him the tools, resources, and knowledge necessary to be successful. In this instance, we, the adults, failed. I failed. At least it feels that way.
I am not prideful enough to think that I could have single-handedly changed this outcome. Nor will I ever think that my job as a teacher is to save students—or this student. I also know that no matter how much I would love to have the assurance that the children of the world are safe, that isn’t a reality. On any level. That isn’t what I mean by saying that I failed him.
My failure stems from the doubts and questions I had after his death. I started thinking about all of the *stuff* my students deal with on a daily basis, and I started to doubt that anything we do in schools can make a difference. How am I supposed to plan a lesson that is engaging enough to combat whatever is going on outside of the classroom? How do I try to get them to care about iambic pentameter and rhyme schemes when they don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or where they are going to sleep that night, or when they fear for the basic security and protection? I can’t fix those things for them. So, what’s the point? Nothing is really going to work. Nobody can make a difference, and I certainly can’t.
It’s like that stupid “starfish story.” The one that is really sweet and touching if you are in the right mood for it. Or, that is totally irritating if you aren’t. I’m not right now. I don’t really like thinking about my students as these sad starfish, washed up on the beach, waiting to be thrown back into the water. Only some of them will be the lucky ones, and the rest are left to dry out, thanks to the changing tide. Because I saved a few of the starfish I’m supposed to be okay with losing the rest of them? That doesn’t seem like a great strategy.
Yet, the idea of saving ALL of the starfish is overwhelming to the point of debilitation. Also, I still have to call my mom to ask her things about taking care of myself, so I’m certainly in no position to be saving anyone. To be perfectly honest, the very idea of teachers “saving” students, or anyone “saving” another person makes me cringe.
I think the reason that idea makes me feel so uncomfortable, is because I know that there is someone who has taken the necessary steps to actually save everyone, and this is also where my real failure comes in—how I actually failed this student, and myself.
I failed to remember that there is a real Starfish Saver. Somebody who has already saved all of the starfishes. Through all the ages, through all the school systems, in all the places. I’m one of those starfishes, too. Some starfishes are hanging out on the beach, some are safe in the water. We are all doing these different things. We wait for the tide to come in and out, and we try to remember that, ultimately, the Starfish Saver has the capacity to save all of us.
While this was a comforting reminder for me, it still didn’t make me feel all the way better. I am working on building that hope for the future, and the eternities, but I still get dragged right back to the present. Yep, one day this student and his family and his friends will be just fine. What do we do until then? What is my role in this? What am I supposed to do for my grieving students? What am I supposed to teach them in a public school setting that makes a difference? I just teach my fellow starfish about the nouns and verbs they need as they slowly dry out? I quote Tennyson to them as we all wonder whether this tide is in our favor or not?
I know a lot of my colleagues are going to be spending time this weekend reading and pondering the words of inspirational, motivational , wise people, and trying to ground themselves in their own motivations for becoming teachers, particularly teachers in a situation like ours. In tough times, you have to remember why you did things in the first place, I guess.
I watched The Breakfast Club.
When I want to give up on education, when I feel like a broken teacher, and when I feel tired of feeling so many things about my job, this is the movie I watch. Not Dead Poets Society, or Stand and Deliver, and certainly not the abomination- of- a- teacher-movie starring Hillary Swank. For those familiar with the movie, you might wonder why I choose to watch a movie with probably one of the meanest teachers ever, who is not inspiring, or positive, or even nice. There are a few reasons, one of them being that it is just a great movie from the 80s.
The movie starts with the Simple Minds classic song, “Don’t you forget about me” a black screen, and white letters. The white letters are a David Bowie quote that reads, “…And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.” This quote is dramatically smashed and blown to bits with 80s flare, and you get a nice glimpse of a normal-looking high school.
Then, you hear the voice of the “brain” who reads the essay they wrote during detention:
Dear Mr. Vernon,
We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms. The most convenient definitions.
You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Correct?
That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.
That opening is definitely another reason. It clarifies for me, as a teacher, what my role is and what it is not.
My job is not to fix anyone, save anyone, punish anyone, redeem anyone, discipline anyone, and a whole slew of other things. These students already have plenty of voices telling them what they can and cannot do. They have people poking and prodding and pushing them. Some have that in more loving atmospheres than others. Some maybe feel smothered by the presence of the love they receive. And that has nothing to do with me.
When they come to me, they carry that all with them. No way I can sort through all of that for each of them—I’m not prideful enough to think I am capable of that, or that I can change that for them.
But, I can try to avoid seeing them as I want to see them. I can avoid seeing them “in the simplest terms” or “the most convenient definitions.” I can give them a space for the many dimensions of their lives and personalities, and I can validate who they are, even if I can’t always validate all of their individual behaviors.
I can care about them. Even when that caring might not do much for them—just like caring about the starfish on the beach might not do that much for it. I think the starfish would still probably rather know that somebody saw it, cared about it, recognized its unique characteristics, and would miss it when it didn’t get saved by the tide. My job as a teacher is to look beyond the persona they create for themselves, beyond the labels their peers would give them, and actually try to see them as a fellow starfish on the beach that has baggage.
Another part of the movie that always gets me is when John Bender is in Mr. Vernon’s office and Vernon is threatening him. Bender seems like a pretty tough kid, with a lot of stuff he is used to dealing with. He is not used to dealing with it from a teacher, though. Or at least on this level. You see the look on his face as he realizes that this adult who was supposed to be safe, wasn’t actually safe for him. It’s devastating, and you can see that he doesn’t actually know what to do.
Had Vernon acted differently, it might not have necessarily changed Bender’s life dramatically. At the very least, though, he could have been one less thing that Bender had to deal with and worry about. He could have been one less person to belittle him, or have low expectations for him. He could have helped Bender find a place to just be himself and not worry about it. This movie reminds me that being a good teacher, content stuff aside, just requires kindness. Which, to be honest, is not always easy, but it also isn’t actually that hard.
The last reason I am going to delve into, I already kind of mentioned. The fist-pumping song that has become synonymous with The Breakfast Club, that captures Bender’s moment of triumph perfectly, is another reason this movie is grounding for me. It captures perfectly the plea of adolescence, and, let’s be real, humanity in general. The song says, “Don’t you forget about me… won’t you come see about… will you call my name… will you walk on by?” All these desperate pleas and questions: Do you see me? Are you going to acknowledge our shared humanity? Are you going to notice and care? Please don’t forget about me.
Being alive can be hard sometimes, but I don’t think we actually need or expect that much from the other people on the beach. Maybe I can actually do my job as a teacher. I probably won’t ever be the perfect teacher, but I am certainly committed to trying.
As I mentioned, I didn’t have any sort of spectacular relationship with this student, but he was my student. I lectured him countless times about his tardy problem. I know I chastised him about side conversations. The feedback that I gave on his last assignment was about the progress he had made. I cared about him, and I hope that all of those various interactions are evidence of that, in their own way.
That assignment will never be returned to him, but I hope he knows that we saw him. He was noticed, and we cared for him.
That assignment will never be returned to him, but I hope he knows that we saw him. He was noticed, and we cared for him.
The empty desk isn’t just an empty desk--it was his. He is not just a statistic, or a kid who got in with the wrong group of friends. Not just the basketball player, or the goofball. He was our student. He wasn't perfect. Neither were we.