Teaching Through Tragedy

Izzy cards copy

It was the most draining week in teaching I’ve ever experienced. For, it reaffirmed for me that teaching is so much more than a job; it’s life, all encompassing. As teachers, we not only bring our jobs home, we bring who were are and the experiences we’ve had into the classroom to share with our students.

This week (DEC 15-19) marked the deaths of two 2014 alumni: separate incidents, different days. The first, emotionally close to me. The second close in proximity.

It was a Saturday morning in December when my son (also a graduate of the same high school) asked, “Mom, do you know Isabella G.?” Yes, I nodded. My kids ask me all the time if I know people because I seem to know so many after teaching in the town I also live in for thirteen years, now. “She died in a car accident last night.” Initially, shock sets in, as it takes some time to fully comprehend. He fills in the details, from what he knows — the beginning of the abundance of fact blurred with rumor from social media.

I recall, two years ago, finding out in fractured details from the internet, students relaying what was being reported on Twitter and other new sources about the Sandy Hook massacre, for it was the first tragedy of this proportion that I’d experienced hearing about via smart phones. At first, I dismissed it, until later I came home and the details began piecing themselves together. Teaching through the aftermath of Sandy Hook was also difficult. The next morning, there was a faculty meeting, before school, to talk about how we should handle it with the students, what resources are available and such.

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And before that, I was teaching on 9/11, as the unbelievable events unfolded until finally school was cancelled. The next day we’d exercise a day of mourning. There was no social media then, or if there was people didn’t access it so readily from their phones; news came from news stations, not Twitter. No morning faculty meeting to discuss how to deal with the event in the face of our students. Nothing like this had happened before. There was no protocol to follow.

But like the faculty meeting following Sandy Hook when protocol had been established, the same early morning meeting would be held for Isabella (Izzy). For neither, could I hold it together, as I would have liked to. While Sandy Hook was a horrific tragedy, I knew Izzy. My daughter knew her; she  looked up to her as a fellow athlete and friend. This one hit home.

I remembered an email Izzy sent me during her junior year, the year I had her and her friends in American literature. It touched me. It spoke to who she was beneath her tough,  teenage exterior. While in the email, Izzy asked for me to keep it anonymous, I wanted to put it out there ( I put it up on Facebook, my daughter shared it to Twitter) because I thought Izzy’s message was so poignant that I wanted others to be affected by it, as I had been. In fact, I was so moved by it, and other sentiments from students over the span of years, that I referred to it in a blog post I’d earlier written about teaching NOT being just about imparting wisdom, producing intelligent, skilled children, but rather about teaching the whole child, recognizing them as people and giving them the skills to be better people.

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I went to school on this Monday with a lump in my throat. Trying to address something like this, while navigating through my own emotions does not come easy to me. My students have seen me cry. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. However, I never want my own emotions to impede the messages I try to deliver to them. This, like the day after Sandy Hook, would be one of those days.

The morning started off not so bad. It seemed the kids welcomed the distraction school had to offer as much as I did. Mid-morning, when advisory came, however, a shift occurred. We were directed to give our students the opportunity to make condolence cards for the family; we were provided with the materials to do so. It was an important thing to do. And in the midst of the mayhem of selecting the perfect colors, and shapes, and supplies, I recalled two years before. It wasn’t a directive on that day; in fact, one of the students suggested we make cards for the families of the Sandy Hook tragedy. It may have even been Izzy; it certainly was her class. I took out my art supplies and we did. It was a cathartic way to deal with our grief and sadness, for we wanted to do something and this felt purposeful. A memory, so vivid, that I could see Izzy sitting at her desk with her supplies, laid neatly in front of her, frantically searching on her phone for the most appropriate inspirational quote. She kept reading them aloud. “How does this one sound?” she’d ask.

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That is when I lost it. My students looked frightened almost, not knowing what to do. Their teacher stood before them and just sobbed. I couldn’t articulate what I was thinking or feeling, but I muttered that I was okay. Later, I composed myself and shared the poem, “Remember” by Christina Rosetti, I’d written on the petals of the flower I had cut out because Izzy was referred to as a “Flower Child.” I also wrote a letter to the family, sharing my experience.

TTG poem

In the next two classes, there were students who had been close friends with Izzy. We reminisced together, cried and hugged too. More students made cards. And, at the end of the day, I felt good. We’d made it through the day.

The next day was better, while pangs of sadness came and went, productivity occurred.

Then, in the afternoon, at home, I heard a bevy of police sirens close by. Minutes later, her phone in hand, my daughter called out, “Someone’s been shot on Cornwall” (the street around the corner from mine). A few minutes later, “Two people have been shot.” It was evident that another neighbor knew who it was from his cryptic messages on Twitter. In less than thirty minutes, my daughter revealed a name, a troubled boy from a troubled family, He’d had a history of drugs, and he, too, graduated from the same class as Izzy. Various reports from news media were revealed in addition to speculation on Twitter and other forms of social media. It wasn’t until midnight did we get the facts, and more would pour in the next day. A email came out from both the superintendent of schools and the principal, also cryptic, for they were not at liberty to identify the victims or reveal the facts, but another faculty meeting would be held first thing in the morning.

I didn’t know this boy, even though his family lived in my neighborhood; I know others who know him and his siblings. His name is Chris, and he was shot and killed by his father, who turned the gun on himself and committed suicide. Chris’s sister is a sophomore at the high school. I don’t know her either, but I teach students who do, and I am her class’s adviser.

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On this morning, the lump in my throat was bigger than two days before, for I had difficulty making sense of not only the incident but still hardly adjusting to the news of Izzy’s death. I went to school with a reserve that it would be another one of those days, and it was. A somber mood blanketed the school, evident from the moment I walked in the door to the moment I left.

From the first class to the last, I tried to ease my students’ minds by sharing my own confusion about the week’s events to let them know they were not alone. We discussed the different ways people grieve and being responsible for one’s words and actions out of respect for how others might be feeling. We also talked about the misinformation that was delivered over social media and in the news– a very real fact of their generation, something they could now learn from, firsthand.

Therapy dogs were brought in. They visited classrooms and legitimately brought a smile to anyone’s face who saw them or petted them. The first time I’d seen therapy dogs was in the aftermath of Sandy Hook.

Good things do come from tragedies. Lessons learned. New ways to cope. The importance of communication as well our responsibility to be sensitive to it. Coming together as a community. Discovering the processes of grief and healing.  Lessons that, sometimes, take us a while to realize. Mine is this. After 9/11, after Sandy Hook, after this week, too, I’ve recognized the ability to teach my students lessons that can’t be taught from books. I’ve learned that I am a model for them of what it means to be human, and even those not close to the events of this week, can learn something very valuable from our collective experience.

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