I want to be the Catcher in the Rye. Unfortunately, I know that I never can be. I can never save my students from the inevitable hardships of life, but maybe together, we can try to make sense of hardship and tragedy. Maybe through learning and reflecting, we can become better human beings.
This past December, one of my students passed away after his snow fort collapsed on him. His close friend, another student in my class, was with him and survived.
Our small community was shattered. Our hearts collectively broke in half. How could this happen to two sweet boys?
For the next week of school, I felt like I was in a dark hole and I couldn't climb out. I cried in the shower, pulled myself together, went to school and feigned some strength for my students who were struggling and lost, drove home, cried in my driveway, pulled myself together for my own children, then cried until I fell into a restless sleep.
My students and I mourned deeply that week. Many didn't want to leave my room. My classroom became a safe space, along with the classrooms of my colleagues. We took kids in all day. We remembered together, cried together, and allowed each other to just be.
That Friday, as several of my students were leaving my classroom, they turned and instinctively said, "Love you."
I told them I loved them, too.
I remember going to the grocery store that weekend and realizing, almost in shock, that people existed who were not in mourning, who were smiling and happy and alive. I hadn't realized what darkness we were all drowning in until that point.
Like all weekends do, it came and went. Sunday night as I laid in bed, I cried again. I was overwhelmed with the feeling that my students needed to know they were loved. Do they all know how much we love them?
I thought about the insane amounts of time I put into planning, curriculum, implementing my fairly new standards based learning system, benchmarking and completing data analysis... none of it mattered the most. None of it.
Relationships matter. These sweet human beings who scramble into my classroom day after day, disheveled and disorganized, tweeny and awkward--they matter the most. I just wanted to hold them all in my arms forever and tell them it would be okay.
We will be okay.
It's crazy because months later, we've forged ahead, but we still live in this strange place of pain and love. We're a family. We have held on tight to one another because we all know--we know what it means to lose someone in such an unfair and confusing way. He was our friend--the one with the bright and goofy smile who wrote, "You can do astorandery things." His writing became his voice we could still hear. Those words became our motto.
As we study theme, my students' themes are often to hold tight to those you love; live life fully because it is short; don't take life for granted. My young students know far too much about life and death.
Because none of us were ready, I decided not to do memoir writing this year, and instead we crafted fictional narratives. Even in the fictional world, students' writing revolved around death at a young age. They tried to make sense out of what they had experienced through their writing. Writing was a safe space. For me, it was emotional to read. There is nothing comparable to the weight of seeing your students hurting.
So today, as my seventh grade students excitedly buzzed around the school on their last day, we exchanged glances of mutual understanding. We exchanged laments about wanting to be together forever.
"Can you teach us next year, too?!" they asked as we hugged, signed yearbooks, and said our goodbyes.
I wish I could.
If I could reveal my inner Holden Caulfield and be the catcher in the rye, I would save them all:
"I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be."
This year has changed all of us. We have a clearly defined "before" and "afters." After this tragedy, I have become a different teacher. I have always been loving, but I am no longer afraid to tell my students I love them. I sign my name with a heart with reckless abandon. I give hugs.
I know the most important thing I can do every day for the rest of my career is love my students with everything I am. I must love them first--before the planning and grading. I will not let a day pass without reminding these beautiful human beings I get to call mine for a snapshot of time, "You can do astorandery things."
Forever grateful, in memory, J. D.