Anecdotes about teaching are a dime a dozen. From stories about grading papers, to inspiring kids, to huge, dramatic blow-outs in class, to rants about the amount of administration that needs to be done, to accounts of awful parents… you would think that teachers have given you the whole picture.
I thought so.
I was wrong.
Everyone warns you about difficult students and nitpicky parents, but there’s one type of experience in a teacher’s life no one talks about. No one tells you that a student may pass away; that the grief, though perhaps not as soul-crushing as that of a parent, is real.
Perhaps it’s because death is taboo (but, why?) or that grieving is deeply personal. Or maybe it’s because this is an experience that not every educator will encounter. It’s hard to say, really.
Educators know that their students will not always be with them. The purpose of this vocation is precisely a preparatory one — transience is built into its function. Indeed, educators often hope that their students would leave the classroom quickly (either because she hopes that the child would spread his wings and achieve his potential, or because the child is annoying #truefacts), but it is a hope rooted in the child’s movement towards something greater in his life. (This, of course, may seem laden with assumptions: That life is somehow greater than death, that death is something taboo. I don’t believe that these are necessarily true, and education should safely introduce students to existentialism and mortality. But even when we talk about death and dying, as the existentialists do, it is a dialogue about how to live, is it not?)
The educator’s grief upon a student’s passing, then, is grief not just about the loss of another human being. She mourns because she understands her relationship with the child as one of empowerment and support, one that gives him the tools to create his future. It is a relationship based on potential. But when that future is cut short — when the potential is no more — it is like having the rug pulled out from under you.
It is senseless, and tragic, and hollow.
It is as if a thriving flame is extinguished before you.
“I go to seek a Great Perhaps.”
― François Rabelais
We may comfort ourselves with the idea that perhaps our students, like our loved ones who have passed on, have moved on to the next phase in their lives. And perhaps the preparation, empowerment and growth that an educator has contributed to the child will somehow manifest in some useful fashion in the afterlife.
But even if we do not believe in life after death, we need not mourn the waste of those good years of education; our relationship need not have been in vain. For the lessons that a teacher shares, and the empowerment that she brings, if it is education in its truest sense, can manifest in a discreet manner. What we learn today, helps us live tomorrow better.
So, take comfort in the tomorrows you have bettered for the child. And be grateful for the tomorrows that he has bettered for you.
(The quote used in the title is by William Cullen Bryant.)