I’ve written before about my mother’s death when I was in 6th grade and how my teachers helped keep my world from collapsing. It was a time when I needed more anchors in my life than I had family members; they kept me connected when it would have been so easy to drift. Now, in my mid-thirties, I can see more clearly how I’ve mentally organized my life around her death. There’s the before and the after, though I can divide the after into different sections, as well (mainly through what occupied the majority of my time: college, my first years teaching, and now parenthood). The before sometimes has a haze around it. I was only eleven when she died, and she’d been sick for a few years before that, so there’s a lot that I can’t remember because I was too young. I do remember feeling unconditional love and warmth; I also remember her very firm boundaries and routines.
The memories are present right now because this past week, I was back in my childhood home, helping my father as he prepares to move. The only reason he’s moving is because of me, following a plan that’s been in the works for a while now. My husband and I are buying the house from him, and with our sons, we’ll be injecting loudness and chaos the house hasn’t seen in about 25 years. While we cleaned and cleared, we came upon a lot of memories and artifacts (along with a seemingly endless amount of VHS tapes). My mother was a teacher, and my husband uncovered old lesson plans. He found her agenda and some notes that she saved from students she taught. I remembered some of their names; they came to her funeral. I also found some of my half-filled out journals from the months after her death, and they are full of anguish. I was devastated, and it was hard for me to imagine that I would ever feel anything but this deep grief.
Time is funny, though, because now when I think back about “the (immediate) after,” the memories are painful, but there is also gratitude. I think about my teachers who came to my mom’s funeral and who regularly and thoughtfully helped me navigate my own grief. I still think fairly often of Mrs. Agars, my math teacher, whose son died suddenly in a car crash a few hours before my mom died. I was in her class when she got a call that she needed to go to the office right away. She was my only teacher who didn’t come to my mom’s services, and she apologized afterwards. But of course, she couldn’t be there; her son’s services were the same day as my mom’s. Now, I remember the warmth I felt with my teachers. Each one of them made a sincere effort to see me and help me understand that I wasn’t alone.
Today, there is a collective grief and a list of traumas that all of our students, our teachers, and our school staff are grappling with each day. Coming back to in-person learning after so many months away is an incredible challenge. Our routines have been so disrupted and our sense of personal space and safety has been threatened for so long. Many students have felt utterly adrift for many months. They need connection, they need support, they need people who will observe and listen and then hold space for them, exactly as they are. That’s what teachers did for me, and that’s what teachers will need to do for millions of students over the next weeks and months. This is not the moment to address “learning loss.” This is the moment to address loss.
My seventh-grade year was better than my sixth. I could enjoy the tasks I was asked to do and find things funny again. My seventh-grade teachers worked to design curriculum that would engage us and make us think. There would have been no room for any of that, if my sixth-grade teachers hadn’t first tended to me and my grief. I believe we’re approaching our “(immediate) after” pretty soon, and it’s going to be all-hands on deck. If you know a student, a teacher, an administrator, or any other person who will be in a school, please hold space for that person. The grief we’re all feeling needs to find other people so that we can share it and figure our way forward. We need strong relationships in schools more than ever, and I know that because I’m product of them.
Image courtesy of Sara Bailey. Pictured is Mary Lou (left) and Sara (right).