Friday, May 9, 2014

The Deaths of Our Students

I have taught for 40 years, thus far. Sadly, some of my students have died. I have attended wakes; I have been a pall bearer.

Chuck Huber was murdered in 1981; Kurt Paulius died of leukemia in 1986; Chris Kirschner died in a Metra train accident in 1992; Joel Rothschild died in a traffic accident in 1994; Carter Denton died in a train accident in 1996… I am sure there are other students who have died, all of them tragic and incomprehensible. They should still be here with us. “Like the actor who/ quits on opening night.../ the play is left with a void.../ impossible to fill” —Joel Rothschild.

I have memories of these students, though I have never written about them. Recently, I came across this reflection by Jeremy Adams entitled Reflections on a Student’s Death: A Painful Reminder of Why We Teach.

“…It is not natural for teachers to attend the funerals of their students.  But this sadness has a didactic and affirming element to it, for it reminds us of something we frequently forget in the context of our daily toils.

“What [we] have learned from [our] heartbreak is that the death of former students should remind us about the humanity of our profession.  For all the talk of ‘norms,’ ‘common’ practices, and ‘standardized’ goals, there is nothing normal, common or standard in trying to make a difference in the lives of those we teach.  

“We do not teach for an esoteric ideal nor do we teach for a test score—we teach for the most hopeful of reasons: to make a difference in another human life.  We want to witness the trajectory of our students’ lives.  We want to see it arch towards their dreams.  We want to live long enough to experience its zenith and delight in the knowledge that we had a role to play in such grandeur.

“Students sometimes forget that we teachers do not having paintings, clients, or patients as yardsticks for our successes and failures.  We do not make great sums of money or win important prizes.  What we do have is the dreams of our students.  And what we want is to be more than practitioners of naked information—we want to be avatars of the Socratic spirit.  We want to be artists of human transformation.  We want student dreams to morph into their life’s reality, [to live longer than us]…” (The Educator's Room)

Elegy for Jane by Theodore Roethke

I remember the neck curls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,
A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.
Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.
My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.
If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.

[Thank you, my dear colleague and friend Frank Alletto, for sending this poem to us!]

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