I stood there in front of my students, completely inept in this moment as I tried to find the balance between strength and my own human vulnerability. 36 hours. Two young lives, taken by their own hands. First, the news of a ninth grader, Cameron, who was the middle school principal’s son. And then, Spenser, a sophomore, who was in our 4th hour class. I can’t remember a tougher moment in the classroom: seeing their confusion, hearing their sorrow, feeling their questions that won’t have answers. Pushing past the insecurity of doing the wrong thing, I did something.
I walked to each of them, put my hand on their shoulder or gave them a hug and asked how they were doing. We got out some paper and did the first cathartic thing an English teacher knows: we wrote. I asked them to write about their infinite potential, to see themselves full of promise, to find what gives them purpose. We watched Nikki Giovanni deliver her indomitable poem to Virginia Tech from several years ago. We sat quietly. We talked. We cried. Some of them left a note on Spenser’s desk. I promised I wouldn’t teach another day without looking every student in the eye, ensuring they heard me say their name.
Grief’s well is powerful, but the solidarity that has emerged this week is stronger. Each day our heavy boots lifted a little as support around our state poured in. I am so proud of our young people as they have struggled to grow up in a new way this week. With respect and integrity they have grieved, laughed, paused and carried on. The rituals help. Visitations and funerals where a community has wrapped its arms around our young people, buoying them through confusion and ushering them into solace.
And there are classroom decisions too. Change the seating chart, gather the materials, rearrange the desks, bring flowers and lots of chocolate hugs. I wonder when to resume or when to pause and hope that if I pay close enough attention they will let me know. They will show me that on Monday they just needed to be, but on Wednesday they needed to be busy and by Friday morning, they are just exhausted.
There aren’t lesson plans for days like these, but that is exactly why we have teachers: there will never be a replacement for one human connecting to another, for an adult to stand beside a young person and walk with him through uncertainty. In times like these we teachers are reminded of our most important work: to be willing to understand without complete understanding.
Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. She also hosts “Teaching Channel Presents” on public television stations around the country. Connect with Sarah on Twitter – @SarahWessling.