Grief. It’s the thing that elicits so many emotions in us. The thing that can bring a grown man to his knees. The thing that no one ever wants to experience. Grief in its most incomprehensible state comes to us in the form of death. Even worse, the death of a child. And in this case, the death of a student.
Teachers have a unique place in the lives of children. We spend a great deal of time with them. We learn things about them, as they do about us. Bonds are formed during the process. Teachers grow to love their students in an indescribable way, and something very special happens. Those students take ownership of a piece of each teacher’s heart.
Yesterday, the unexpected happened. I woke up not feeling well, and had called in sick. After my family left and I’d fallen back to sleep, I got a call that will forever be a defining moment in my teaching career. The call was to inform me that a student had passed away. A student I had in class. Without hesitation, I jumped up, got dressed and came to school. All I could think about was the reaction of her classmates, her friends. They were going to need support, shoulders to cry on, arms to hug them, people to share their sorrow with. I knew it would be a difficult day, but I was not prepared for the level of devastation that swept through the middle school. Watching kids grieve for the loss of their own is gut-wrenching. As they sit and stare at the floor, the silence is deafening. Seeing them hurt and cry, and knowing there is nothing I can do to take away their pain, is a helpless feeling. So many people have been touched by this. So many tears shed. So many sad faces.
I hope you will allow me to speak about my relationship with Valerie. I came to know her last school year. A sweet little girl with the most pleasant disposition. She caught my attention early on because of her bubbly personality, her quick wit and her boisterous sense of humor. Her laughter was infectious. The joy she carried with her added such a positive energy to the classroom. This school year was no different. When summer ended and school was back in session, I quickly realized she had not lost her charm. If anything, she grew funnier over the summer. It did not take long to establish a bond with her. Before I knew it, the class period she belonged to would become the one with the most laughter. I am a person who lives for laughter, so as you can imagine, that class period was very therapeutic... not only for me, but for the other students as well. There were days that the laughter in the classroom would end with someone saying, “this is why I love this class!” We all knew that Valerie was to thank for that, as the funny moments typically began with something she had done or said. On days she was absent, there was a clear difference. A void, if you will. Valerie was the only student that gave me a nickname. She called me Kinger instead of Mrs. King. Of course, she asked me ahead of time if that was ok. I sensed the fun in the situation, and she never took a disrespectful tone about it, so I allowed her to do that. She told me to call her Bayler, so I did. From that point on, I could always look forward to hearing, “Hey Kinger!” every day when she walked through the door. The other students just knew it was something only she could get away with. Nobody tried to follow suit because they knew that was 'her thing.'
I had recently asked her what I was going to do without her next year when she moved over to the high school. She assured me that she would come see me and call me Kinger because, as she said in her giggling words, “I know you will miss that!” She was right. I already miss that. I already miss her.
Moving forward, there will be many dark moments here in the middle school. For the students, for the staff, for me. The void that used to only occur on an occasional day she was absent is now a permanent void. A void in my classroom, a void in other classrooms, a void in the middle school. Some of us lost a student. Some of us lost a classmate. Some of us lost a friend. But we all lost a special girl and a piece of our hearts. The love that people had for her has been so evident the past two days. Nobody here has been immune to the grief. And none of us will ever forget her.
Below is a picture she drew of me, and for me, on her computer. She said this drawing was me as a jack-o-lantern. One of the many things she did that made me laugh. It is now priceless.