When Former Students Die: A Teacher’s Reflection
If you teach long enough you’ll come to learn that the human story never graduates.
I last saw him 11 years ago.
Waiting for the graduation procession to begin, under that shadow of his squared cap, tassel dangling about his face, he smiled and said, “Mr. Armstrong, can you believe it, they’re actually letting me graduate!”
I smiled, “Yeah, God knows what they were thinking.”
A few years after graduation, he married his high school girlfriend, the girlfriend he sat next to in my English class.
They had a daughter together. Built a life together. And then he died.
He was 29.
In truth, I haven’t thought much about Mark since our time together. Nothing intentional, it’s just as a teacher, so many lives come in and out of your life that it’s easy to lose track of who has passed through.
Yet when a Facebook post informed me that Mark had died, his name, his smile toggled memory, transporting me back to my old classroom–room 201.
In 2006, we were all young.
Collectively, what we lacked in knowledge we made up for in enthusiasm.
I was 26, inexperienced, short on life-lessons yet excited at the prospect of teaching and inspiring and helping mold the minds of young adults.
Most of the students were 18, fueled by hormones, seduced by the promise of adulthood and all its liquid freedoms.
They weren’t malicious.
Just kids straddling adulthood. Bursting with energy. Kids uninterested in dated stories scratched in stale books written by dead white guys.
It was in those days when I began to learn how your students’ lives wedge themselves into your life. How their drama becomes your drama. How their remarks and actions and attitudes confound you, unnerve you, keep you up at night and make you question the fate of the world.
But teach long enough and it all begins to run together.
Summers are merely conjunctions linking one run-on school year to the next.
And in this rambling life sentence, the days and weeks and years overlap. The names and faces and voices that were once so prominent, so sharp in your life only round and dull over time.
But when you learn a former student has died and you hear their name, you read their obituary, something happens. A key is turned, an engine started and the memory machine chokes and begins its work.
It’s been 11 years but…
…the class consisted of mostly males. It often felt and sounded and even smelled like a locker room. Based with deep laughs ,those students in room 201 were unconcerned with things like death, poetry and me–a young teacher fixed with a knotted tie, polished shoes teaching his little heart out.
…how the classroom windows faced east and how in the Spring sun would rise and blaze through the thin windows and how after lunch, room 201 turned into a cinder block oven.
…Mark complaining it was just too hot to learn.
…for most of the school year Mark slouched in his seat. Legs stretched out as far as they would go. In his hands, he would often work a hand grip. Squeezing the tension and releasing, until one hand would tire then he would switch to the other.
…how his girlfriend sat beside him in class. How they would slide their desks close together. How he would rest his free hand on her knee and continue to work the hand grip with the other.
…when they weren’t flirting they were fighting.
…during a stretch of days, in late May when the outside world hummed with life and there was little reason to pay attention to me, Mark’s feet were flat on the floor, elbows on the desk, hand grip unseen, eyes glued to the pages of the book we were reading, The Things They Carried.
…he told the class to shut up when I was reading how Curt Lemon, a 19 year old U.S. soldier, walked carelessly through the Vietnam jungle, stepped on a mine and blew himself apart.
…Mark holding a copy of the book, standing in the class doorway looking at me and smiling and saying, “I really like this book.”
Mark wasn’t the first of my former students to die however, it’s always hard to imagine your former students dead.
Because when you taught them, they were young and indestructible and alive. As if they would always be that way.
It’s not in the job description, no one tells you this, but teachers are carriers of life.
Every student’s story, no matter how big or small, how dramatic or pedestrian is fixed with an intangible weight. A weight that you carry with you, from lesson to lesson, from year to year, forever. So when you learn that a former student has died, that former student and their former life is suddenly present, is suddenly now.
And 11 years later, when you’re on your couch, scrolling through your Facebook feed and you read the news and see the face, you retreat into memory and you feel a familiar heat and hear the straining echoes of your first lessons and your big blue eyes dart across the classroom to find a smiling young man, working hand grips with one hand, cupping his girlfriend’s knee with the other, waiting for high school to end.
Waiting for life to begin.