Today I buried another student.
For those who don’t know, we lose more than our share of kids at my school, as if that’s even something you can portion out. We have lost at least one kid each year for almost all the years that I have taught at that high school. One particular group of kids was hit the hardest, and they were my particular group of kids.
I used to run the program for at-risk students. They weren’t just at-risk in terms of academics, and to be honest, some of them were the smartest kids around. But there were all kinds of issues that were affecting their success in school, so our program was meant to provide a different way of doing school to help these kids get their credits. Most of the time, my time was spent helping these kids with everything but schoolwork, but then they were able to take care of the academic success on their own. Really, I was more of a parent-for-hire. The social-emotional stuff was on the front burner all day, every day.
My special group of kids were all tough and they were all broken. They had all experienced loss in one way or another before I ever met them. They had found each other (they always do) and were a very close group of friends. And then one summer afternoon, Dani died - hit by truck when she got off the bus after summer school. We opened up my classroom and the whole group of kids showed up, silent, grief-stricken, not sure where else to go. They were lost together. They spent the day writing notes to Dani and to her family, while the adults and experts in the room watched their grief from the sidelines. When I went to the funeral home the next evening, I found them all out in the hallway, unsure of what they were supposed to do when they got in there. It was a profoundly sad teaching moment when I had to show them how to navigate such a tragic rite of passage, to let them know what to expect and what to say or do. And yet, it was my honour to do so. A teacher's job description is far more vast than most people realize.
And then life went on and those kids all returned to school in the fall, but they were no longer the same. They threw themselves into fundraising for her tombstone, they partied hard in her honour and her name was always on their lips. And then Miles died, in a car accident on the night of graduation. Same kids. Same grief. Same gathering in my classroom. Same funeral home entourage and funeral procession. And sadly, this time they knew what they were doing. Experts at grief, experts at being lost together.
Since then, the same group of friends lost Austin, to a drug overdose, while everyone else in town was at the Syrup Festival. And today we buried Isaac, who finally succumbed to his injuries after a terrible fall a few months ago. They don’t meet in Room 108 anymore, but I can still find them together when these things happen. They are a tight group, bound together by their shared losses. And they will always be my special group because I travelled that path of grief with them.
This funeral was the hardest one for me, and I know why. It’s because now I am a mother. My heart breaks in a whole new way now when a kid dies. Isaac was a big strong boy. And he was somebody’s baby boy, a baby boy who died too soon. Becoming a parent changed how I am as a teacher. I now see each of my students as somebody’s baby, more so than ever before. I used to mutter to myself “Precious to God…. Precious to God…. Precious to God….” when someone was being a big jerk and I needed to check my own response. Now I think “Somebody’s baby…. Somebody’s baby…. Somebody’s baby….” And it makes my job so heavy that I just can’t do it some days. So that’s another reason that I am stepping away from teaching, at least for now. I can’t lose another kid.
Erin still insisted on calling me Miss Raymer when she served me lunch at the restaurant, even though she was 28 and I hadn’t taught her since she was a smart and saucy girl in my grade 9 English class. And now I have to see her pretty face every evening on the news, as her murder trial drags on. Like I said, I can’t lose another kid. I’ve lost too many.
One good thing happened today though – one kid came back to me. We had toughed it out together through her high school years and then things fell apart one hot May afternoon when I wouldn’t let her watch Desperate Housewives on the computer in the classroom. She never spoke to me again. And I’ve always been very sad that things ended that way with her. Today, when she saw me in the foyer at the funeral, her eyes filled with tears. She gave me a huge hug and said “I have missed you so much”. It’s been four years, but she came back. At least that’s one kid I didn’t lose for good.
Kari Raymer Bishop
Lover of Jesus, cheeses and tropical breezes... seeking balance in life, even as I embrace new challenges and chase new dreams. I am wife, mother, daughter and friend, as well as teacher, entrepreneur, activist, writer, beekeeper and hostess. Come along on the journey through my long-awaited midlife crisis!