Archives For April 2013

I originally wrote this piece about six years ago, after a pair of tragic events that hit my community. I was thinking about it recently, after the death of a former student of mine. I was thinking about how death comes to a town, or a school, or a family. How we deal with it. How we grieve, and how we deal with life, as messed up as it can be sometimes.

I’ve been seeing a lot of former students lately, scattered throughout the grades, some off in college, succeeding, and some struggling. Some of them will undoubtedly go through some very rough times in their lives. And if any of them out there are reading this, I hope they know that they can always come to me for help.

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April 14th, 2007

I wonder if you realize something. I wonder if you understand that all of us – me, the children who survived, the children who didn’t – that we’re all citizens of a different town now. A place with its own special rules and its own special laws. A town of people living in the sweet hereafter. 

– Sarah Polley as Nicole in The Sweet Hereafter.

A couple of months ago five teenagers from my school district died in a drunk driving accident. I didn’t know them. Their names were vaguely familiar, but I didn’t know them.

Last Tuesday a 16-year old boy stayed home from school and killed himself with a shotgun. I didn’t know him either, but I think I had met him once or twice. His mother teaches in my building, and his older sister had the lead in one of our productions last summer.

Needless to say, our community has had a rough year.

At first it was a distant feeling, the abstract sense of the tragic, the typical wondering of the why and how could it have been avoided. The puzzlement and the mourning once-removed. Death watched from the outside, looking in.

The days passed and the reality, the realness of it starts to become more apparent. What-ifs and the but-for-the-grace-of-God bittersweet understanding that you’re still alive and this kid isn’t.

Saturday the staff of my building gathered together and drove to the memorial service, to pay our respects. Drove with the principal, a good friend of mine, but still the removed feeling, the weight of the event strangely absent.

Walking a ways to the church, because of all the cars, because of all the people there, all the students and teachers and family and friends. There’s the football coach. There’s Curt, probably friends with the family. Ginny from the park district. Then some former students of mine. Some I hadn’t seen in years. A hug for tearful Katie.

Walk into the church, a church I’ve been in a lot, actually. Used to watch some of the girls sing and play piano when I was invited to their recitals. Because I was their teacher, or their director, or their friend.

More people I know. My co-workers, from now, and from then. Some more students, some friends of my roommate (who is friends with the boy’s oldest sister.) I make a small note in my head about how strange it is that I know so many people here, and yet I barely knew this boy whom they were remembering.

The service starts. Songs, readings, eulogy. I listen to it all from the hallway, listening to the pastor trying to make some sort of sense out it. At one point he says, “You are always something to someone. On your worst day, you’re still someone’s son, someone’s best friend.”

You are always something to someone. 

There was a moment, before the service started, that I need to describe. The church was very crowded, and so many of us stood in the halls or watched from the basement. My friend Jeff had been standing next to me, but had wandered away, and I found myself standing there alone. It was a strange, selfish thought, but at that point I was a little bothered by the fact that I was standing by myself. I’m alone too much of the time, and I started getting self-conscious of this fact. The outside-looking-in feeling again.

Then another former student of mine walked up to me. Someone I know very well, since he’s been in Limelight since he left that fifth grade room six years ago. We said hello, chatted a bit, and then the service started.

And he never left my side. As the service progressed chairs were brought out and most everyone sat down, but he and I stood there, sentinel-like, never moving, never speaking. We stood there, next to each other, and listened to the service.

When it ended everyone filed out, behind the casket, tears streaming, arms and hands together, holding on to each other for comfort. More and more students and actors and tech kids of mine started walking past me. My roommate, and the girl I had just interviewed a few hours ago for a directing position.

And there it was, more or less, the last ten years of my life, a world that the boy and I seemed to share in more ways than one.

You are always something to someone.

I didn’t know him, and there’s no way to tell him anything, change anything, and it’s a shame. He lived in this wonderful world, full of bright, loving people, all in it together.

Maybe he saw it, maybe he didn’t. I wish I could show him, let him know that it gets better, that even though the nights are horrible at times, it gets better. It gets better because of all those people in that church, all those people that he knew and I know, all interconnected.

I know a few guys his age, and I know they struggle at times, and that’s been the hardest part about this whole thing, from my point of view. Thinking about those boys that have been lost in their own lives, wondering what’s the point, wondering if getting through it all is worth it.

While I stood there next to this former student and friend that is so dear to me, I wanted to grab him and let him know how much he means to me, how much he means to everyone. I wanted to let all those lost boys out there know it: you are something to someone. You are something to me. You are something to all of us.

We are all in this together.

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A lot of young people I know are heading into teaching. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

 

Part One: Voice and Personality

Go to any teacher’s website, or read a copy of their newsletter. Listen to some of them teach. What do you notice?

We all sound depressingly similar.

We’re all thrilled and excited to be teaching, we all encourage our students to be life-long learners, and we all have fun and exciting things planned in our safe and caring classrooms. And when you step inside that classroom, it can all too often be a chorus of identical phrases and commands learned from teacher manuals and institute day workshops. We “appreciate” the way students follow directions, we “appreciate” a parent’s suggestion or request, we “appreciate” a staff member’s comment in a meeting.

I’m not sure why this is the case. Maybe we’re too addicted to the step-by-step curriculum that’s been forced on us over the years, too used to following specific instructions that encourage the use of common and easily identifiable words and phrases. Maybe we’re afraid to talk like regular folks, with our own personalities and senses of humor, and instead we hide behind safe teacher phrases in order to avoid the shock and potential backlash of daring to talk like a real person. We all hear the horror stories of an irate parent or a student who misinterprets something said in class, and it pushes us towards a bland and toothless way of communicating so as to avoid any controversy.

Most teachers who choose to speak and instruct this way go through their entire career cheerfully following orders, teaching the curriculum exactly as its prescribed, providing their students fun and exciting life-long learning opportunities in a safe and caring learning environment. They are a committee-produced mission statement come to life. Years from now, former students will strain to recall their names, one bland unimaginative teacher melting into the next.

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Playing with your snack break was encouraged in my classroom.

If you hope to develop any sort of positive relationship, or gain any measure of respect from your students, their parents, and your colleagues, one of the most important things you can do is to develop and maintain a clear, individual voice and personality. If you want to be one of those teachers that inspires and encourages kids to do great things, then figure out who you are, and what makes you unique in that classroom and in that school. When you are talking in class, or sending out information to parents, or even updating your classroom website, you need to communicate in your voice, not the standard playbook of a million other teachers.

While this isn’t the only Secret To Being An Amazing Teacher, it’s where you need to start. And don’t be afraid to mess up sometimes; occasionally, you’ll get strange looks from kids or puzzled parents and principals if you stumble while developing that voice. Just defend yourself, explain what you meant, and don’t revert back to that robotic persona so many teachers are forced to adopt out of fear of trying anything different. Be funny, be irreverent, be strange and weird and nerdy and enthusiastic about strange and weird and nerdy things. Share your love of rugby, or the outdoors, or Loudon Wainwright songs about dead skunks in the middle of the road.

Remember: it’s your room, your methods, your students, and your voice.

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Wearing odd hats and having baby chicks as sidekicks was also encouraged. Photo used with permission.

Coming Soon: Part Two, where I reveal that Actually, No, It’s Not About You