Beginning a career at the age of 22 is a daunting task for anyone, but when your subordinates are only a couple years your junior, and when those subordinates are actually students in your English classroom, situation and circumstance are made all the more difficult simply because of numbers. I had read all the books, taken to heart the sage advice of those who had come before me, namely the suggestion to not smile until after Christmas break, and I embarked upon my new life naively believing I was prepared. Teaching, much like parenting, has a way of laughing in your face and kicking you in the crotch, playing you for an incredible fool. Yet on the days you’re certain you’ll break and run, something happens to pull you back in. It’s a sick cycle, one not everyone can appreciate, unless they experience it first-hand.
There I was, fresh white-faced among a sea of color with empty pockets. I threw away the books and suggestions after the first day because this school? It wasn’t covered in the extensive how-to chapters, nor was it included in the HORRAY and YOU CAN DO IT prologue. As many times as I threw my hands in their air with an accompanying exasperated fuck this, I always found myself drawn back. What began as a dicey this-could-be-the-stupidest-
And I became absolutely enamored with it all.
As my colleagues and I found our groove, and I swear created a shift in the atmosphere, a shift we were proud of–one we had worked so hard for–the universe dealt an irreparable blow and erased one of us. The universe can be a real asshole.
She was 17. The police reports said she died instantly; her passengers survived and would later return to school outwardly and inwardly scarred. Years later, when I bumped into them, the physical bruises had healed, but the darkness behind their eyes spoke of no relief.
No one looks forward to funerals, but there’s something unnatural about a parent burying her child. I didn’t want to go. I cried for so long. I was terrified, and because no one else was available or willing, I had to go myself. I remember walking up to the funeral home, swarming with cars and nervous smokers, wishing someone were at my side so I could make this stupid joke already, my go-to remedy for levity. The joke was about my uncanny ability to always say the wrong thing at the wrong time; I had a few examples loaded and ready to go, but tears stung my eyes and suddenly I felt very, very alone. Familiar faces met me just as I was about to go inside, and for a moment, I considered just leaving with them. Yes, I COULD use a drink, thank you for the invite. But I didn’t. I went inside, instantly overwhelmed with the incoherent wails of the girl’s Mother.
Just then, my principals and I made eye contact from across the room; they waved me over to where they were standing in the receiving line. Relieved to have someone at my side, I quickly took my place beside them. Before I realized words were spewing out of my mouth, I heard myself whispering, “I can’t do this. I can’t stop crying. This is awful. I can’t–” A hand on my shoulder, my head principal’s lips close to my ear: “This isn’t about you, Steph.”
Her words weren’t biting, her message not unkind. In fact, my principal said exactly what I needed to hear exactly when I needed to hear it. Spoken like the matriarch of our family, she gently reminded me of the world and my place in it.
With hot tears clinging to my cheeks, I hugged the grieving Mother whose extra dose of Prozac had kicked in, quieting her sobs. I repeated, “I’m so sorry” until I choked on the words.
I’m still so grateful for my principal’s words; her hand-tailored gesture guided me through yet another experience the books don’t talk about. The 17-year-old wasn’t the last student we buried as a school, as a family. Funerals never got easier, the losses remain unnatural, but at least now I know to pull from that quiet reservoir of strength, summoning it when I need it most.
This is a response to the third Write Anyway writing workshop prompt.