Please bear with me as I ramble.
It’s been two months.
It’s also been almost six years.
No matter the time gone by, no matter the person, no matter the circumstance, there’s pain.
Two months ago today, my brother-in-law died very unexpectedly. Fifty one is too young. Too young when you have a child.....an only child, who already lost her mother.
Almost six years ago I sat at my sister-in-law’s bedside. I was with her when those unbearable words were spoken: “There’s nothing more we can do”. I had to call her brother to come, I witnessed her dad, lean from his wheelchair, kiss his only daughter on the cheek and tell her to “kiss your mom for me”. For days I comforted her as her body slowed, she said her goodbyes, and passed from this world. But that wasn’t the worst of it - it wasn’t sharing secrets that we had never told anyone, it wasn’t talking about what Heaven would be like, it wasn’t sitting with my brother-in-law, talking him through this tragedy, while she slowly slipped from us........it was sending dear Hubs and a cherished friend to get my niece from school and hearing her innocent footsteps approach the hospital room as my sister-in-law took her final breath. No twelve year old girl should have to see her mom’s body for the very last time ...... and then, only five years later to witness her dad dying before her eyes.
And no child, no matter how great or small the world perceives their loss, should EVER have to worry about their return to school. To worry about telling other people, to worry about how much work they “have to” make up, to worry about .... anything. We, as educators, bear a massive responsibility in how this is handled. Inside the walls of our classroom WE ultimately are responsible for what happens – and I’m not talking about the progress students show on paper or the score they receive on a state test or the work they missed. I’m talking about the responsibility we have in ensuring that every child is emotionally cared for and genuinely knows that and never questions their emotional safety within those walls. I know I was not the favorite aunt when I showed up at her school – during my sister-in-law’s final weeks or after her passing. But I didn’t care – it wasn’t about them, it was about ensuring the emotional safety of my niece and all of the kids around her. And that was my priority, in her classroom and in mine.
I wish I could say that my fierceness in protecting my niece was baseless, but unfortunately nine years ago I was that teacher. I had a student that year whose sister died very unexpectedly – there was more tragedy around it than you can imagine. He was out for over a week which gave me lots of time to just spend with my other kids, the “one year family” for this child. I will never forget, as long as I live, telling my other students about this tragedy. The staff had “the plan” of what we would say and who would be with me in the room in case they were needed, but we NEVER could have been prepared for the impact on these kids. This may have been the turning point in my attitude shift in my role as “teacher”.
I am very aware that I can be an administrator’s nightmare. You have to be a pretty confident person to be “in charge” of me (dear Hubs, I’m sure, would aggressively shake his head in agreement!). I don’t march to my own drummer, I have my own unconventional band – yup, I’m one of “those” kinds of girls that make people nervous. But, most everything I do is backed up with research. And in all of the research I read on grief, it NEVER said anything about test scores, it NEVER said anything about the urgency of showing progress and in improving data, it NEVER said anything about pounding the pavement with academics, it NEVER mentioned meeting standards, and it NEVER mentioned all the work they “had” to make up.
It was at that point that I realized that in 10 years this student wouldn’t remember third grade for the score he received on any assessment or how much academic progress he made or the work that he wasn’t able to make up or how quickly he assimilated back into our room the way other people expected him to.
It was at that point that I realized more than I ever had, that the community I worked tirelessly all year to build would be one of the most important supports for him.
We were prepared to do whatever he needed us to do, but when he returned it was quiet, uneventful.
He just needed us “to be.......”.
He needed us to be there for him without saying anything.
He needed us to support him by leaving him alone.
He needed us to know we loved him by respecting him enough to let him sit in our class bathtub for almost a week and stare at nothing.
He needed me to be completely okay with his world stopping.
He needed me to accept the fact that nothing mattered to him except the loss of his beloved sister.
He needed me to be strong enough to fiercely defend my decisions and my actions on his behalf.
He needed us to be okay with him rejoining the team on his own terms.
He needed us to “be” whatever it was that he needed in each moment.
And so it was then that I realized how critical it is that, from day one, we work on the community we choose to have in our classrooms – no matter what our year may bring.
I spend almost two weeks to start the year on team building, community building, relying on others, and emotional safety. I literally do NOT touch anything academic for 7-10 days. In my opinion, these lessons, this time spent has been more critical than any math fact, any close reading, any fact or reading fluency rate, any research or learning we do and each year I am prepared to defend my decisions if needed. It’s the old saying of “start slow to go fast”, but it’s more than that. Yes, we start slow and move much more quickly with academics as the year goes on, but it’s also giving yourself permission to completely come to a standstill when it’s needed, academically OR emotionally.
Whether it’s a parent, grandparent, sibling, friend, a family pet, a divorce - loss is loss and grief is grief and it’s critical that we honor and respect that – no matter how uncomfortable for us, we need to honor our kids’ emotional well-being. I’m so fearful that we are quickly moving to a place in education where we don’t stop everything to respect each other’s feelings and emotions, but instead quickly brush it under the rug and shift our focus almost entirely on achievement. We need to grab hold, dig deep, and put our foot down. No child can achieve, great or small, without validating their emotions.
The other day I witnessed the most beautiful thing. A dear friend and teammate (same band as me!) had a seven year old student whose dog died. She stopped the world of “school” to wholly focus on his grief, on his pain, on supporting and loving him. She allowed him to tell the class and be completely okay with what happened next.......through her actions and her incredible love, each student felt safe enough to one by one come to him and hug him. He cried, she cried, many of the classmates cried .... and they all grieved together. And it was okay and it was safe because she has worked so hard to create that team, that family in her classroom.
And it hit me this morning....
There is no beauty in grief.
The beauty lies in the relationships with the people who help you through that grief.