One early October morning, I came home from the Game of Thrones symphony concert. I had enjoyed a good time with my good friend and with my daughter. We came home very late past midnight to a family medical emergency. I had to leave the house again and make a second long trip across the bay to the hospital. I sat in the waiting room feeling upset and anxious. Thankfully my loved one was safe and eventually released. We got home close to my workday alarm going off at 4:50 in the morning. I called my boss and apologized profusely about the need to take a personal day. I was getting ready for bed when I received another call. A staff member let me know that one of my students had been killed.
Anthony hadn’t been at our school for very long. However, I knew his family, having worked with one of his siblings in previous years. We didn’t have very many interactions outside of his initial intake meeting. We did meet on the morning of the day he died. He met with me after a teacher expressed concern about attendance. Out of all the students I met with regarding this concern, he was the most respectful. He had an inquisitive look in his eyes and once he relaxed, he was open to our conversation.Not all students relax when talking to school administrators so it struck me. I listened to his account of what happened. He appeared sober and had actually made it to class on time. When our conversation ended, he thanked me and he said “ I hope you have a good rest of your day”. He said it in a sincere tone which felt sweet and young. So many of my students have experienced so much in their lives and may be wise beyond their years; others seem tired from all they have endured and are sometimes unable to enjoy their youth. Anthony struck me as young, despite his life experiences. He had retained a youthful energy. To hear that his young life had ended was shocking.
I called my boss again. I told her what happened and asked what we could do. She told me, “Take care of your family and yourself. I will be there in your place.” I am grateful for how she stepped in for me that day. I will never forget that morning. It was the first time I lost a student as a principal.
We honored Anthony through our Dia De Los Muertos altar. My leadership students hosted an intimate memorial service with his family. It was a moving gathering as my students had the opportunity to share their thoughts.
Since then, I stopped writing. I had things to say but I needed time to reflect. I continually pondered not only at work but in my life : What is the purpose of the work I do? What is my mission and vision? There were many times this school year I was ready to give up. I know I will continue to have those moments. What keeps me moving forward are those moments when young people reach deep within themselves and reconnect with trust in themselves, in adults, in the world. It is beautiful when that happens and when they are willing to share those moments. After two decades, I am committed to working with adolescents. I can handle their challenges. This, however, was something different, heartrending, something that rendered me speechless.
I needed to sit with this loss, sitting shiva, guardando luto. I always remember the image of Job sitting in the desert, with his friends beside him, sitting in silence. I needed to sit in the desert of this loss. Thankfully I had friends and loved ones on the journey of silence with me. I know that silence can be fruitful. I am grateful for my gifts of writing and reflection and for the gift of loss.
Thank you for sharing these powerful words and emotions! If you ever would want to write more about the grief process after the first shock and farewell, I would be interested in reading it.