Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Untitled and Unfinished

When I told my father I wanted to become a teacher, he flinched. Not because of the traditional reasons, such as the limited financial possibilities, or the fear that my career might mirror his own short teaching career in the 60’s, where race riots and metal detectors were the norm at Medford High. No, he was nervous that I’d get hurt. At the time, I thought I might want to teach kids with special needs, and he (correctly) speculated that I would want to adopt them all and take them home, that I would want to hold them all, hug their hurts away, and potentially give too much of myself to them. But a few courses in, my lifelong love of literature and writing solidified my true calling as an English teacher, and I am sure my father was relieved. But I am also sure he didn’t expect the hurts to come in a completely unexpected and sad way, like when I lose a student. It has happened too often, and the list is too long.

Steven DeMarco. Allan MacLean. Jeff Flores. Jason Graham. Jimmy McGonagle. Steve Baxter. Ross Alameddine. Carolyn Smallcomb. Alyssa Nanopoulos. Patrick Barry.

Most of them were barely twenty, and though they are united in the fact that they all left us too soon, that they all attended Austin, and that they left holes in our hearts, they are as different as shells on a beach.

Losing them hurts in a way I never expected, and never completely goes away. As an English teacher, I feel sometimes connected to my students in a special way, as so much of what they learn and contribute in my class involves a give and take, or a revelation of personal history. They write about their feelings, their fears, their triumphs and reactions. They joke about their families and friends, they find themselves, their opinions, and pieces of their future selves in new and surprising ways on the page. They are often braver on paper than they are in speech, for the mere distancing of those words in writing from their physical selves means they can shape them, own them, and change them. In the fall, they are nervous and expectant; as the seasons change, so turns their dedication, and by spring, the warm weather awakens their silly side, and everything becomes relaxed and happy. By  the end of springtime, we know each other well, we have tested each other, we have become friendly. And when we all leave for summer vacation, we feel good. Happy to have known each other, and, in a positive way, to have outgrown each other. Spring and summer are usually wonderful. 

But when Ross Alameddine died in the spring of 2007, it wasn't just Austin's pain; it was the nations. In April of 2007, Ross was one of the victims in the Virginia Tech shooting. I had known and adored his older sister for her charismatic personality and adorable ability to make anyone smile. She was petite, lively, and hilarious, and though I had not actually taught her in class, she was one of my dancers, she had attended my alma mater, and she had even lived in the same dorm room on the first floor. Ross was one of my students; he had taken my Creative Writing class as a senior in the spring of 2005, and had impressed me in a totally different way; he was as articulate as he was intelligent, quirky and unique, wonderfully gifted and unabashed. I adored him in a completely different way, and though I hadn’t directly spoken to him after his Austin graduation, I still had his senior picture posted on my file cabinet. 

I was driving to my mom’s house when my cell rang.

“Hey, Mom. What’s up?”
“Did you see the news? There was a school shooting in Virginia. At Virginia Tech.”
“Oh, Christ. Was it bad?”
“Honey, I think one of the students – one was from Austin. I think - I think he was one of yours."

When I arrived at my mom’s house, the news was on, and seeing the same senior picture I had taped to my file cabinet broadcast across the news was gut-wrenching.

Our school was in shock. When I was asked by our Campus Minister to say a few words about Ross at the Memorial Mass to be held at our school, I was so honored and humbled to be the person who could give voice to the eloquent and exemplary young man who graced my classroom. But I couldn’t find the right words to capture him. I spoke about his intelligence and excellence as a writer. I spoke about the way he was so comfortable in his own skin; how he was a terrific dancer, how he fixed my computer weekly, how he sought out new and obscure bands. I spoke of the way he ducked his head and smiled to the side when he read his work aloud, how he adjusted his glasses and nodded a little like, "Yeah, that was pretty good," when it was excellent. I said I was sorry he was gone, that I knew he had so much more to share, and that the world he would have created and shaped would be different now. I said I was lucky to have known him, that we all were, and that I was proud to have shared laughter with him and applauded his successes. I said that his short life gave us a glimpse of what could be, and I was so grateful for it. I read some of his poetry and choked up halfway through it. 

His wonderful friends stood up and shared memories of him from his elementary school days all the way through his life. They were eloquent, honest, and real, just as he was. They wore their "Rosslets" - turquoise rubber bracelets with "Rossmo" stamped on them. And while I could never take any credit for the people they became that day, a piece of me is so happy to have known them, taught them, and been there for them when they were young, because I was able to see them when they were kids, and I have the privilege of watching them grow. 

How I wish they all had more time. 

Today I'll wear turquoise for him, and my classes will pray for him. Much like this post, things will feel unfinished and sad today. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Panic Rabbit

As Easter rapidly approaches, my thoughts turn to all things bunny-related (including Cadbury Mini-Eggs). Yet I am faced with yet another creature who keeps hopping into my path. I call him The Panic Rabbit. 

As a working mom, I have days when everything goes very smoothly and according to plan. As a teacher, I have the outline of my day as well as my students' goals and homework in my work planner. Finally, as a compulsive list-maker, I consult my personal journal/notebook several times a day for reminders. I cross things off, and it truly helps in the grand scheme of things. But things ain't always grand. Mornings, for example. This is when The Panic Rabbit arrives. 

Sometimes I wake up with him on my chest, and I barely have enough time to sprint to the shower, where I stand under the spray trying to remember if there's something I'm forgetting or missing. Other days, despite the fact that I lay out my daughter's clothes, lunch, backpack and jacket the night before, the time passes so quickly and I find myself tapping impatiently as I wait for her to finish her breakfast so that both of us can sprint to the car and speed to school. The recent detours en route to my job give me more anxiety than a mouse in a maze, and though I know there are world issues with far more gravity and consequences than my morning routine, the thumping of the Panic Rabbit's giant feet on my chest make me want to grab him by the ears and fling him over my shoulder.

Yesterday, he made a special appearance. I was getting ready for a full day of work, including an administrative observation (which is part of our job, and happens yearly, but is still nerve-wracking), as well as a few meetings. My son, who likes to be as close to me as possible after he wakes up, decided to exercise his new favorite word: duck. He followed me into the bathroom, placed his rubber duck on the edge of the tub, knocked it onto the floor saying "duck - quack quack!" and repeating his motions about a dozen times. The sound of his little voice was as adorable as his happy smile. I leaned into the mirror to finish putting in my contacts and giving myself a final once-over. My cowlick was tamed, my bangs were behaving, my makeup was on, my Spanx were spankin' and I felt pretty great in my Ralph Lauren dress. This is good, I thought. This is going to be a good day. I stepped back from the mirror.

And then I pinched his little finger under my high heel. Cue the Panic Rabbit.

I don't know what felt worse: his squashed digit or my guilt. He cried, of course, which prompted my own tears. Fortunately, he is a resilient little guy, and like the athlete I dream he'll become one day, he literally shook it off. During breakfast, he picked up his sliced strawberries with the same gusto (and dexterity, thank God) as always. But when I went to kiss him goodbye, he looked at me seriously, pushed me away, and said, "No, Mama," and the Rabbit came back.

It's not just the mornings; it's parenthood in general. Whether worrying if my daughter is doing okay as  one of the youngest members of her class or fretting about the health level of her classmates, I find myself in a cycle of worry and relief, questions, concern, and comfort, and the hopeful expectation that the next day will be a better day.

My father once gave me the wise advice that each person gets the same amount of hours in the day; it's what we choose to do with them that counts.  I am going to spend more time trying to quiet my Panic Rabbit. Like his furry counterparts who frolic in the roads, my Panic Rabbit can dart in from nowhere to give me a start. But he'd better keep his distance. I'm dangerous behind the wheel, especially when I'm late for work. Just sayin'.