They say the worst thing that can happen in life is the loss of a child. It’s unnatural. It’s horrific. It’s impossible to explain or rationalize. When a child dies, there is no asserting that “everything happens for a reason.” In my own life, I learned this lesson early on with the death of my older brother, Jimmy. Though he died when I was a mere baby myself, I have lived in the wreckage ever since. My younger sister, Emily, and I continue to witness the destruction in my parents’ eyes, and there is no question that we are in so many ways products of this young boy’s death.
As a high school teacher, however, I was completely unprepared to lose a student, one of my “kids.” Alas, little in life—especially death—allows for sufficient preparation. A couple of years ago on a snowy Thanksgiving weekend, just as I was nestling in for a cozy getaway in the Poconos, I received a phone call that Petros, one of my former freshmen, had been killed in a car crash. I had taught English to this boy with the dark, chocolate eyes long before his days of racing wildly through the night in a car with back seats and seatbelts replaced by pimped-out stereo equipment. After hearing the news of his death, I cried long into the early morning as though I had lost a close friend or relative.
In the days and weeks after, I stumbled along in a daze, shredded, numb. Slowly I began to think back, resonate in Petros a bit. I recalled his loyalty to his family, his pride over his Greek heritage and his job at his family’s diner. I remembered how he would flash his bright white smile at me in the hallways long after I had stopped teaching him short stories and Shakespeare.
As a teacher, I was struck by the harsh reality that I was not only mourning the child but also the cruel, premature finish to a million possibilities and what-if’s. As many teachers do, I frequently gaze out upon the faces in my classroom and ponder their potential (and, of course, in some cases, fret over what seems to be the lack thereof). I wonder to myself, What will goofy, charming Sean be when he grows up? Will Maddy one day be less sad and awkward…perhaps blossom into a great poet or professor? Will Courtney stick to her painting and move to SoHo one day? A part of me envies their future: venturing to college and all of its adventures, traveling to England or Italy for their studies, moving into their first walk-up hovel in the Village, forging new and interesting relationships. When a student dies, however, there is only one question to ask: Why?
Again today, death snuck rudely into my school, with no invitation and complete disregard for that which was planned. My principal interrupted 1st period to announce over the loudspeaker that a little girl in our grade school had “gone home to God.” Another angel taken. I remember her well. She used to sit in the lunch period that I proctor, gnawing at her sandwich each day, chattering to the schoolmates around her. Her distinct, scrunched-down puppy eyes melted my heart every time I saw them and are now emblazoned in my memory.
Upon hearing the news, my students and I solemnly closed Romeo and Juliet and awaited the bell. A silent pall draped over my classroom, and suddenly the unexpected March snow falling outside seemed appropriate. I thought of Capulet’s sorrow over Juliet: “Death lies on her like an untimely frost/Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.” Sweet flower indeed—our little student’s name was Rose.
Later on in the day, a junior I taught during his freshman and sophomore years came to visit me during one of my classes. On the outside, Danny is a tough guy. He struts his stuff, likes to wear his hood up despite all uniform rules against it, has been to hell and back more than once. Inside, Danny is all good, absolute solid gold. He sat on the stool next to my podium. “Finish reading the chapter on your own,” I instructed my class, turning to my visitor. Sometimes life is more important than a lesson plan. “You hear about Rosie, Ms. B?” I told him that I had. “She was the sweetest little girl,” he continued. “When my mother used to work in the cafeteria, she’d tell Rosie her lunch was two dollars, Rosie would give her seventy-five cents and take off.” I laughed, picturing that little pistol of a girl marching through her short life on her terms, taking no guff from anybody. Danny turned more serious. “I had to put my dog to sleep this week, Ms. B.” My heart silently shattered. “I’ve been crying ever since it happened.” My attempts to comfort him felt feeble, weak. What to do with this much grief? “I’ll never get another dog as long as I live, Ms. B.” Pause. “Well, at least not until I’m thirty.” Then he gave me one of those classic Danny smiles and was on his way down the hall back to whatever class he had ditched.
And so we march on. The next bell rings. A little boy gets a puppy. Schoolgirls resume their chatter. A cafeteria fills up again with loud, voracious kids. A teacher plans her lessons for tomorrow. We watch the weather forecast hoping for sun. And as the snow slowly turns to rain, we pray for the new flowers of spring.