Three weeks ago, a student experienced a health crisis incident and died on our campus. It happened in our busy central courtyard a few minutes before classes started for the day. I didn’t know him myself, but the teacher next door did. Several of my students did. With the way misinformation spreads online like wildfire these days, it was a difficult day and few days afterward, but ultimately I am thankful for how our staff responded to the student’s emergency and our community’s grief.
Human beings, both adult and teenaged, respond to grief in surprising ways. The day after his death, students held an informal memorial in the courtyard, some staying much of the day, some stopping by for a few minutes before or between classes. I saw students and staff supporting each other in hallways and classrooms and walking each other down to the space in our office set up with counselors and people ready to talk with anyone who needed it.
One of the important things we teachers are reminded of regularly (particularly around the holidays) is that secondary trauma and grief can manifest in ways we don’t expect. Although I didn’t know the student personally, his death reminded me of other students I’ve had who have passed away and other feelings of sadness both past and present. I know this is a common experience for many of my colleagues as well.
A couple of school days later, our school locked down in response to a phone call to our front office claiming we had an active shooter on our campus. (It ended up being a mix-up with another school that had the same initials as ours, although we obviously didn’t know this at the time.) My students sat huddled close together on the floor underneath some furniture out of sight of our large windows. I double-checked the lock on the door and closed the blinds. The students murmured quietly to each other; a couple of them giggled nervously and immediately hushed themselves, sending apologetic looks my way. We refreshed our cell phones looking for updates. As I sat there with them, waiting for news, I felt a wave of grief and frustration and helplessness. Why are situations like this normal in classrooms across this country? Why do we allow this to happen to our children multiple times each year? We don’t have to live like this.
A week later during our regularly scheduled staff meeting, our principal took the time to address the events of the past two weeks and invited two trauma counselors from our city’s police department to discuss ways to process the stressful and sad events we’d all experienced. One speaker shared the metaphor of an emotional bucket where you throw in all your grief and stress and trauma to deal with later, saying that if you don’t talk it out or otherwise address it, it will eventually overflow. In hindsight, it isn’t surprising that this moment is when my own personal bucket overflowed. Crying in public? Not generally my thing. Crying in the middle of a morning school-wide staff meeting? Definitely not my thing. I ended up talking things out with a friend before our next class, and it truly helped. She truly helped.
I like to think that another way of looking at the emotional bucket metaphor is to fill it instead with gratitude and small joys. Emotions to push back against the grief and sadness and anger and fear. With that in mind, here are some things—big and small—that I am grateful for.
I am grateful for the colleagues—the friends—I sit with at lunch who make me smile and share stories about their grandchildren and their pets.
I am grateful for my students and the way they care for each other and for me.
I am grateful for the opportunity I had last week to attend a professional conference and learn from amazing teachers and educators from across the country.
I am grateful for friends who remind me to laugh and make time for fun and not take myself too seriously.
I am grateful for my family.
I am grateful for my dog who pushes his cold nose into my hand and demands cuddles when I’m feeling down.
I’m grateful for an additional day off before Thanksgiving to rest before the busy-ness of preparing to host family dinner and the long weekend ahead.
I’m grateful for this platform and the opportunity to write and share my experiences.
I’m grateful for you, for taking the time to read this.
Happy Thanksgiving. Wishing you much joy and love and rest in the days to come.