When You Lose A Student: Contemplations On Why We Do What We Do
A former middle school teacher shares the heartache that comes with the recent death of a former student.
I'm standing over his open casket. It's easy to see below the embalming and make up and find the face of the boy I knew. His smile. The line of his jaw. His nose. He was ten years old when I met him in 2001, one of 47 kids who were my students for three years as they moved through sixth, seventh, and eighth grade. These kids were pioneers -- part of opening a small, autonomous, public school in Oakland, CA. More than that, they were my kids.
On the final afternoon of our three years together, we crowded into a classroom and tossed a ball of yarn from person to person. Each student shared what our community had meant to him or her, what he or she would take into their lives. A web of yarn wound around our limbs and hearts connecting us. David, you're the first we've lost.
Friday, December 13, 2003. The phone rings at 6:20 a.m. "Elena, they caught Saddam! They caught him in a hole in the ground. It's on TV now!"
"Who is this?" I mumble, half-awake.
"It's me, David. They caught him, Elena! I've been watching the news all morning. They caught him. These days I'm always watching the news, and I knew you'd want to know. Turn it on, and we can watch together!"
They called me Elena, my kids did. They had my phone number, and I was happy to hear from David at 6:20 a.m. The previous year, when they were in seventh grade, we'd studied the origins of the Gulf War. He watched the news because he was a curious, inquisitive, and engaged kid.
Luis calls to tell me that David was killed. He says, "I've already lost five friends from high school, but David was one of my best friends. He was into some bad stuff, but no one deserves to be killed."
Luis' younger brother was killed just weeks before; his younger brother wasn't into anything bad. He had walked to the corner store where he'd been robbed for a phone and petty cash. His mother, two blocks away, heard the gunshots.
Luis tells me, "My kids are traumatized. They wake up every night screaming, saying they dreamed that someone is coming to kill me. I tell them, 'No one's going to get me. I got this.' But we gotta get outta Oakland."
It has been a couple years since I've seen Alejandro. He was one of the 47. We sit together outside the mortuary. He's a teacher, owns a home, and is proud of how he cares for his family. "This is too close," he says as the tears trickle down his face. "That could be my brother lying there.""How is your brother doing?" I ask.
"Not so great," he says. The tears keep falling. "They were good friends. But he says that was David's destiny, that he never thought he'd make it to 21. My brother is only 22 and feels like an old man."
I can see the tentacles of systemic oppression that killed David. He made some bad choices; I know that. He'd been making them for some years, and I know that the story goes back hundreds of years and is a mile deep.
I know that David came to me reading and writing at a second grade level, and that although he made academic gains in middle school, he wasn't prepared for high school -- not academically, nor socially, or emotionally. I know that his self-image as a student was weak, that he found affirmation on the streets. I know that in the neighborhood he grew up in, he didn't have a vast range of choices for how to stay safe or demonstrate a healthy way of being a man. I know that the high schools he attended needed more -- more funding, more staffing, more structure -- and that he quickly slipped through the cracks and out the door. And I also know that his mother and father loved him fiercely and did all that they could.
I know that there are too many weapons in our country. I know that addictions rupture families and hearts and souls and that our society can be harsh and unforgiving. I know that our desire to blame -- blame the schools, the parents, the individual -- doesn't help us figure out how to unravel the tentacles or help our kids who are in pain.
What can I do? What else can I do so that the next generation of teachers won't gaze down into the caskets of their kids? So that the next David can grow up and pursue the things that get him up at dawn and capture his attention? So that Luis' kids don't wake up screaming at night and so that living past 21 isn't an accomplishment? What can I do?
To start with, David: I can remember that you are not just a statistic, not just the 70th homicide victim this year in Oakland, not just another dead young brown-skinned male. You were not just another gangster -- or whatever they'll say about you. I can remember, and I can share this with others: Early one morning, just after you'd turned twelve, you were captivated by world events.
The challenge is to live with the knowledge that my efforts are just a drop on a parched earth.
David, regardless of the journey that took you to your grave, I will always love you. Because I knew you when you were a goofy ten-year-old kid, because I know the part of you that is gentle, that is curious, that was hurting, and that was afraid.
And I'll keep offering my drops of whatever I can offer because what else can I do?