When a student dies

I virtually never see this subject discussed, which is strange granted that it happens, not as a matter of routine, but often enough. I have no idea why the topic is not discussed more openly. I see there is a Reddit thread on it, but I’ve decided the Internet is basically just a place where Men Explain Things To Me (and, more wonderfully, cat pictures) and I don’t want to see the likely unkindness on display in comments when somebody exposes a vulnerability on Reddit..

I think the reason it’s so seldom discussed is that teachers are supposed to have, I suppose, some clinical distance. You aren’t their <em>parents</em>, after all, so getting attached in such a way that a student’s death actually leads you to grieve sounds like a lack of boundaries. It’s modernist holdover, maybe, in a profession where you must care for somebody in what is an intimate and important transformation–learning–but not care, so that any indicator you have gotten too close is weakness. It’s a high wire.

And yet, I feel a student’s death keenly. I love students, as friends and co-adventurers, and I really don’t think there is anything wrong or icky about feeling those feelings or admitting them openly. I feel a special bond with the students who have come into my life and classroom and shared our experiences there. I care about them as individuals as well as students. I am now nearly 12 years into my faculty role so I doubt that time is going to make me jaded.

My first real experience with student death is nearly indescribable: it was in 2007 at Virgina Tech, where 32 of our students and colleagues were killed in a mass shooting. I have never really written much about Tech simply because I don’t have the words. I had accepted the position here at USC about a month before it happened, and I had already handed in my resignation, and so things went very quickly: the shooting happened in April, the end of the semester, and it was one rush after another: the memorials, the final week or so of school, and then limping through commencement. There’s very little hope of explaining what it feels like to be part of a community when a mass shooting takes place: it feels like I imagine a war zone feels like, only with less warning–a stealth attack on an ordinary day when all you expected to have happen was another boring day at work, and then becomes an experience that will always make you feel grateful for every other boring day you get.

Then the rush of the house sale, packing up, coming back to Los Angeles. When I finished moving and had room to breathe, I came to USC enclosed in a fog of grief, barely able to get up in the morning, dragging myself through classes completely unable to write or work. Los Angeles, with its relentlessly sunny weather, gives the grief-stricken little excuse to stay inside and curl up into the tiny ball of pain grief turns you into. ┬áMy colleagues had no clue. Most of the time I simply walked around like zombie, shriveling up inside every time I ran into yet another senior colleague who had little to say to me except that I Must Publish Or Be Fired. I don’t know how I got through it: imagine wanting desperately to work, being unable to work, and having all your colleagues do little besides bark at you about getting work done.

To wit: any (usually male) writer that tells you writer’s block is a myth, or a self-indulgence, or what have you, is full of crap. Grief doesn’t let you back up until it’s darn good and ready to, and if you can work through it, bully for you. But lots of us can’t, at least not very well, and if you are one of us who can’t, then you aren’t alone.

Even to this day, over a decade later, I think about that terrible April day every time I walk on campus. I always wonder if that day will be the day it happens at USC. These thoughts come to me every time I walk into a classroom.

More recently here at USC, we lost a student who was in my planning theory class, and she was just a very sweet, special lady. She was so helpful to me when I had another student who was facing a housing crisis. She loved her family so; I enjoyed seeing her pictures on Facebook with them where she always had a broad smile on her face. She and I weren’t especially close, but she made it a point to stop by my office and check in when she could, and she was grateful for any little thing that you did for her. That alone made her standout. She was very helpful to me when another student faced a housing emergency.

Whenever one of my students dies, I am dreadfully sad verging on heartbroken. It is sentimental and perhaps self-indulgent–there surely others more entitled to sympathy and their own grief than me. And yet it is not as though grief is a cake where if I have some, others get less.

I am sure that doctors and nurses have their own way of making sense of it all–they are in caring professions and must have patients die, too–and carrying on. I guess that’s all you have, this carrying on. When one gets to be my age, one is used to one’s role models fading from you and leaving, and yet I have yet to become accustomed to losing those so much younger. I hope I never do.

I wish I had some wise words for anybody who got here via a search looking for help with grieving over a student. I have little other than to take care of yourself the best you know how, comrade, and to keep having the courage to care about students as whole people, not just educational units, even though it hurts sometimes.