There's an unfortunate catch in what I otherwise consider to be my perfect job: I teach these people, come to care about them, and then they go out into the world, and sometimes bad things happen to them.
When I had children, I understood that I was opening myself up for a world of pain; that's part of the deal we make with the universe when we become parents. However, when I signed my first teacher contract, there was no clause for heartache; no asterisk denoting the fine-print possibilities.
Over the years, I have taught some truly great people. People who have gone on to do great things and make this world a better, kinder, more colorful place. Many of these people have become my friends, and it has been thrilling to make that transition from Mrs. Lahey, to Jess, to friend. A few have become confidantes and, as they grow into their respective callings, peers. Milestones in their lives have become milestones in mine: the first wedding, the first baby. The first death.
I was prepared for the wedding and the baby, but Andrew's death...it knocked the air out of me and I am only beginning to remember how to breathe.
I visited with him last winter, on a weekend trip to New York. We caught up over coffee, laughing about how different our lives are and how far we have come as my children drew faces in the fogged cafe windows. It is always a wonderful privilege for me to get to know the people my students become, but part of me holds on to the memory of their teenage selves. No matter what they do with their lives, the mistakes they make, the successes they earn, they always retain something of their doughy, unformed adolescent innocence.
Those doughy faces met me at the classroom door thirteen years ago. And two weeks later, when I showed up at that door with eyes swollen from crying over the sudden death of my best friend, they were my salvation. I don't remember much of that day, but I do remember that they noticed my pain. They were quiet, and kind, and respectfully concerned. And by the end of the day, they made me laugh. I specifically remember being surprised by that laugh, and I was grateful that I had decided to go to work that day. My students saved me that day.
Yesterday, I arrived at school in a fog of sadness and fatigue wearing my reading glasses, hoping it would conceal my puffy eyes a little. I slapped on a smile, took a deep breath, and dove in to first period Latin, hoping that my teaching muscle memory would take over. I had to admit to the students after my fourth or fifth stupid mistake that I was just a little tired and a just a little sad, and I allowed them to work on Latin translation in groups and pretended to grade papers.
As teachers do, I pushed on through third period Latin and fourth period Latin and fifth period English and sixth period English. I tried not to make mistakes and aimed for the end of each period, ever closer to the end of the day.
Two seventh grade girls stopped me as I walked into my last period, thrust some paper into my hand, hugged me, and ducked back into the mass of students changing classes. It happened so fast, I barely had time to register who they were and what was in my hand.
They were folded notes, covered in glitter pen, adorned with sparkly flowers and hearts, my name printed on the front in big, pink bubble letters. The words inside were loving, warm, and kind - just the salve I needed for the gaping wound I had been trying to cover up all day.
They were not fooled by my glasses. They knew. And once again, my students saved me.
This was not outlined in the fine print of my teaching contract, either, but I'll take it. I pinned their notes to the wall above my desk, and as I look around those notes, I can find other reassuring evidence that I have kept close to me over the years. I have found salvation many times over. There's a photo of a baby named Jack, the child of my student Bailey, with a piece of paper that she had slipped in to my hand after class when she was fifteen, over a decade ago. She'd had a revelation one night, written down a quote she'd found, and proudly presented it to me as a connection to something we had read.
The note she handed me ten years ago says:
I can't remember precisely what we were talking about in class, but I've saved it all these years because she'd made a connection. To something - anything - outside of class. I still teach this same quote today (although a different version of the words), in an altogether different context, but the essence still resonates: we can't ever repeat the same experience because the circumstances, the people, the moment, has moved on.
The students may change, but the waters remain the same. I'm hip-deep in this river, and I'm staying. No matter what the water brings my way, drawn downstream, to drift out of sight.