Wednesday, September 30, 2009

It's Not the First Time

I found a girl crying in the hall next to my door a couple of years ago. She had asked to leave the room much earlier and, when she had taken too long to return, my co-teacher went looking for her. She was found in tears.

I don't deal with tears very well. I may be a man, but I'm sensitive and empathetic. Still, I never know what to say. I don't know these kids, not really. I may know their classroom personas, but I don't go home with them at night. I don't get to perch inside their heads listening in on their internal dialogues figuring out what makes them tick, what makes them hurt. For some, they want to be comforted, but I don't know how to give it. For others, they want to be alone so they can wrestle down their anguish, mop up the tears, and return to the public eye as if nothing happened. I never know exactly which route to take, so instead, I usually give them their space, a place to escape their peers, and time. It may not be exactly what that student needs, but it's the only kindness I know how to give.

The next day this girl waited until everyone else left and then told me she wasn't even supposed to be in school. The doctor had told her to stay home for a month. It turned out that the tears weren't over a boy, an angry word, or embarrassment, but a baby. When I had sent her out of the room she had miscarried. Then she had just taken the time and space I had given her. This day, for some reason, she wanted to tell me what had happened. When she saw the shock on my face she tried to comfort me. "It's okay. It's not the first time."

I recently finished reading the book Keeper of the Night and there's a scene that brought back to mind every sad story I've been privy to as a teacher. The narrator of the book is Isabel, an eighth-grader whose mother had recently committed suicide. Her father has grown distant in his grief, her little sister has nightmares and wets the bed, her younger brother has begun to self-destruct, and she's now the matriarch of the family. When she turns in a poem about her brother's cutting instead of a full essay, she receives an F from her teacher. The teacher agrees to give Isabel another chance, but asks for something more cheerful. Isabel responds by taking a happy family story a friend once told her and recasting it as her own. She receives an A+, her first ever, but she crumples the essay up and throws it away. The teacher had preferred false pleasantness over reality and took the joy from her academic success.

I just can't allow myself to do that.


Sid said...

It's not the first time? Seriously? Like ... this isn't the first time she's miscarried? How old was she? Shit!

Also ... will attempt to track down this book and read it.

A Free Man said...

Far out. How old are your kids? For some reason I thought you were teaching middle school. If so, that's disturbing. Actually, it's disturbing no matter what the age group. What's going on in South Georgia?

Julie said...

Not the first time? Youch. I'm sure that made you worry less.

I think you did the right thing. You can't take on their problems. All you can do is try to be understanding. And ask them to see the counselor - which they will probably refuse to do.

Jacob said...

Sid: She was actually 17 or 18 at the time. I also slightly fictionalized some of the details because it involved a student in a sensitive manner. The heart of the story is there, but the facts may not be right.

A Free Man: I'd rather kill myself than teach middle school. The seventh-grader is the very worst thing about humanity, both in dealing with them and being one. Seventh grade sucks for everyone. Sixth and Eighth grades are only slightly better.

Jacob said...

Sid: The book will be worth it.

courtney said...

Poor girl. It makes me really sad to think about the circumstances that led to her having more than one miscarriage.

I think keeping an emotional distance from your students is a good thing. You're a teacher, not a counselor.