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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Lessons Learned: When a Student Dies

Frances Peacock

First grade teacher from Indianapolis, Indiana

Editor's Note: Frances Peacock has been an elementary teacher for twenty years. She teaches in a high-poverty area in the Indianapolis Public School District.

A teacher works for the future.

Every August, a group of first graders enters my classroom. I teach them how to read and write, I tie their shoes, and in June, I send them on to second grade. As soon as I meet them, I push them ahead, swiftly: "Onward and upward we go, children!" It's the way the system works.

But recently, for one teacher at another school, the future stopped cold.

She dismissed her students on a Friday afternoon and on Saturday, one of them died. The child was taken in an instant, from her family, her friends, and her school.

On Monday morning the teacher faced an empty desk, bewildered students, shock and sadness.

I can't make sense of this. I don't know how I'd cope with the loss of a student. But it seems to me, that, along with the terrible grief, I would feel that a deal had been broken.

I've always had a quiet arrangement with my students. It's a one-sided contract I've never told them about. If I were to put this deal in writing, it would read something like this:

I, the teacher, will have you, the student, in my class for one year. After that, I may never see you again. But I will spend the rest of my days entertaining hopes and dreams for your future success.

My students are heading off to do great things, I am certain. I have visions of grandeur for each child: The actress will go to her Broadway stage, the Supreme Court Justice to his Bench, the Naval Commander to his ship.

When a student dies, those dreams are wiped away. The hopes are gone. The deal is off.

A teacher must look backward, not forward, to see that particular child: She is sitting at her desk. She is turning the jump rope on the playground. She is crying because she left her gym shoes at home. She is planning to grow up like the rest of the class.

But it's not going to happen.

Every year there are teachers who lose students to illness and tragedy. I wonder how this changes them.

Those teachers have learned how fragile life can be. They've found out that once in a while, there is no next year; and the biggest days of a person's life might be playing out right in front of their own desk.

I bet those teachers slow things down. They probably don't push quite so hard. You won't hear any of them hollering, "Hurry up, we're late for science!" in the hallway.

They are the teachers who give an extra 15 minutes for recess, just because the weather is warm and the sky is pretty. They sit on the carpet and read three stories in a row until their voice gives out, because the children are loving the performance. They let the class run through all nine tubs of poster paints and don't think about the mess until after school. They know every moment matters. They know it's their job to be joyful.

I see what a fine balance it is, to care about the future, but also cherish a day of childhood. To know that my first graders must be ready for law school someday, but that other work must be done as well - work that fills the soul in the here and now.

And so this morning, I have a different set of plans. I'm going to give everyone a diamond shape to trace. I'll pass out the orange paper, the wooden sticks, and the string.

The spelling and math will have to wait. Right now, tomorrow's lawyers have some kites to put together.

Have you experienced the loss of a student? How would you support someone else who has?

Frances Peacock

First grade teacher from Indianapolis, Indiana
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