Nearly every year that I was in high school, a student died from a car accident. Most of the accidents involved alcohol. In my junior year, the father of a child who barely survived one of the crashes arranged for the mangled car to be parked outside our school, blood still on the shattered windshield and dash, so that other students could see the results of drinking and driving. I was not friends with any of the students who died. I only even had classes with one of them, but I knew who they were, their deaths still affected me, and I can still see that car’s twisted metal and crimson dash.
The most significant way in which the deaths of my classmates affected me is that, when I decided to become a high school teacher, I assumed I would experience the loss of students throughout my career. Morbid as it is, it seemed like a fact of life to me. While I’d watch in horror and despair while other schools and other teachers experienced the tragedy of school shootings, the likelihood that such a thing could happen at my school seemed significantly less than that someday the principal would solemnly announce over the intercom that a student I taught had died. Fortunately, in the ten years I have been teaching, I have never lost a student for any reason. I am so thankful for this, and I want to think that the death rate in my high school was an anomaly.
But this year, death and loss are certainties.
This post is not about whether or not we should have school in person or virtually, and please don’t make it about that. The fact is that, no matter how school happens, death and loss will happen.
I may lose students.
I may lose coworkers.
I may lose family members.
My students may lose their classmates, their teachers, their family members.
My own children may lose their classmates, their teachers, their family members.
And I don’t know how to prepare for it or how to handle it when it happens.
I have been fortunate to have rarely experienced the death of a loved one in my life, but when I have, it has devastated me. If I lose a student or a coworker, how will I continue teaching? How will I be able to console my students when I can’t compose myself? If I lose a family member, will I only be given three days to grieve and then expected to move on with my job?
When my students lose someone, how can I be there for them? If I’m teaching virtually, will my written words of empathy sound hollow? Will they know that I wish I could do more? If I’m teaching in person, will I have to cry with them from a distance? Will I really have to stand six feet away from a child who needs to be comforted? How many times will I set aside a lesson plan to focus on my students’ mental health?
If my own children lose someone, will I be able to do anything more than cry with them and pray that this all ends soon?
This year, I fear the loss that will invade my classroom. I fear the loss of students, the loss of coworkers, the loss of the ability to comfort and console, and the loss of the ability to put things in perspective. My biggest fear, though, is that a newly emptied desk will haunt me like that crumpled, bloody car, but there will be no meaningful lesson to glean from the void.