Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Aftermath

Let me just start by saying, feelings are exhausting. Nod if you're with me.

If you read my last post, then you know I was hit pretty hard by the news of the suicide of one of my former students. The process of...well...processing this has been kind of surreal and unlike anything I've experienced before, thank G-d.

First, there was the wake. I went with some teachers from my school who also had this child in class, and I will say that I am very, very glad that wakes are not part of the Jewish tradition. It was excruciating, bearing witness to so much pain. But it was also kind of lovely in the sense that it was a beautiful tribute to this child and it was clear the family had so much support from the community. I met one of her current high school teachers, and we had a long, comforting conversation in which we shared memories of her and talked about how we were coping. Still, I don't imagine I will get images from that wake out of my head any time soon.

All of this has brought up a number of interesting parallels to themes of my recovery. Here are the two big ones:

1) I am not entitled to my feelings.
I mean, this girl was my student seven years ago and I hadn't seen her in five. Do I even get to call this, "grief?" Am I entitled to that emotion? These questions echo refrains that came up time and time again when I was struggling with my eating disorder:

a) I'm not sick enough to really "qualify." 
b) Why am I so miserable when I have a lot of good things in my life? 
c) Nothing terrible has ever happened to me. Am I even entitled to have an eating disorder, or am I making it all up?

Sound familiar?

(In case you are wondering similar things about yourself, the answers are: a) Everyone says this, and you do qualify; b) That's depression, baby; c) YES you can have an eating disorder without a history of trauma.

What I've decided in this case is that, yes, I am entitled to grieve this student. I call my students, "my kids," and they are my kids forever--so when something bad happens to one of them, even if I haven't seen her in a few years, my heart is going to break a little bit. My grief will look different than that of the teachers who taught her this year, but it's still real and I have to let it happen.

2) Black-and-white thinking
Oh, I am in this. As a former Queen of Black-and-White Thinking, this should not surprise me at all. But I will admit that I was a little taken aback by the train of thought I went down the day after the wake:

What I do to nurture my students is so insignificant. It's not going to help them later when they're really struggling. And it won't matter anyway if they kill themselves.

Now, here's the thing: I KNOW this is not rational. I know it doesn't make any kind of sense to just throw in the towel and say, "Well, I'm not teaching anymore because I can't fix all their problems." I GET IT. And yet. There are still days when I look at my current students and I just feel sad, because I can't predict what is in store for them as they get older and therefore I can't prevent their future pain. I look at them and I feel exhausted, because I can give them everything I have and it might still not be enough. But what choice do I have, really, other than to keep giving? Giving them my whole heart is the only way I know how to do my job.

Sometimes, when I reflect on my recovery and dwell on a particular area where I still need work, I will suddenly develop tunnel vision and only be able to see that way in which I am not 100% "fixed." I then start thinking, "I haven't made any progress at all," or, "I'm still really sick." In my rational moments I know that neither of those statements is true. I have made a TON of progress, and I am NOT really sick, or even close to really sick. I just still have things to work on. But if I only focus on my deficits, I can't move forward.

And if I only focus on the ways in which I can't help my students, I won't be able to be present for the ways in which I can.

One of my favorite Jewish quotes comes from Pirkei Avot, and I have been thinking of it often as I wade through this grieving process:

"He [Rabbi Tarfon] used to say: It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it." (Pirkei Avot chapter 2)

That's how I am thinking about teaching. I am not going to be with my students for their whole educational careers; I will not be able to coach them through every crisis that comes their way; I won't be there to pull them out of the dark places the mind can go in adolescence and beyond. But I can--and I must--give them a strong foundation. I can teach them how to persevere, how to manage their feelings, and how to value themselves. I can show them love and hope that it sticks with them. If I make their world bright and safe while I have them, that is the most important thing I can do.

In an effort to remind myself of this, I spent some time before Shabbat going through my "Teacher Treasure Box." I found a number of adorable notes from my student who died, which I am using as a warm and positive way to remember her. But I also found this valentine from another student, which brought tears to my eyes and reminded me exactly why I do this job:

That child moved to another state the year after I had her, and I don't know how she's doing or where life has taken her. But I know I helped her love school when she was in third grade. I shined some light into her life and made her feel loved. What more can I hope for, other than that?

I'm not going to complete the task. But I'm going to continue doing my part.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Unthinkable

I can't think of a good intro for this, so I'm just going to dive in.

Today, I found out from my principal that one of my former students committed suicide last night.

I had this student in third grade seven years ago. She was a total delight. She was all sunshine, smiles, and giggles; she was smart as a whip and just as hardworking. I adored her and I never worried about her. I've had a habit since I started teaching: every year I study my students and try to predict who among them is at risk for a mental health crisis in the future. You might think that's a morbid way to view one's students, but to me it just makes sense. As the November 7 edition of TIME Magazine points out, in 2015 approximately 3 million teenagers ages 12-17 had at least one major depressive episode, and 6.3 million teens had an anxiety disorder. And that's just depression and anxiety, people. Statistically speaking, some of my students are going to wind up in those percentages. Maybe if I can identify them early, I've always thought, I can start the process of getting them the support they need.

This child didn't even make the bottom of my Mental Health Alert List list the year that she was in my class. If there were early warning signs, I totally missed them. Her death was one I never saw coming.

After my principal pulled me aside to tell me the news, I went back into my classroom and watched my current crop of students chattering and swarming about as they lined up for lunch. I had been at a professional development training that morning, so this was the first I had seen of my kids all day. A few came up to me, presenting me with their precious smiling faces and a cheerful, "Good morning, Ms. B!" I looked into their eyes and tried to see all the way inside, desperate both to memorize their perfect vitality in that moment and to protect them from future despair. I couldn't square the children in front of me with the news I'd just gotten about my former student: how is it possible that a child who is so brilliantly vibrant in third grade could end her life as a sophomore in high school? And if you can't predict who that will be, how can you prevent it?

I can never protect them enough, I thought. I can't love them enough. I would give them every ounce of love in my being, and the world could still defeat them. Nothing is enough in the face of all that pain.

I failed that child. Who's to say I won't fail another?

When I got home from school, I pulled out my class photo from the year I had this girl. There she is in the second row, smiling, with a bow in her hair. I also dug through my "teacher treasure box" of mementos I've saved over the years and found the holiday photo card from her family in 2010; every photo features her: mugging for the camera, hugging her parents, playing violin. Looking at the pictures fills me with sadness, but I can't pull my eyes away; I have to take her in. I've been trying to think of things I could have done differently with this kid. Could I have shown her more how precious she was? Could I have instilled in her more resilience? Should I have followed up with her as she went through school and reminded her that she was still important to me?  But then I tell myself that I'm probably overstating my impact. After all, I've been through several major depressive episodes and ventured into some pretty dark mental territory over the past 15 years, and I've never once even thought of reaching out to my former third grade teacher for support (and I had an outstanding third grade teacher). The truth is, we--as elementary school teachers--play a huge role in our kids' lives while we have them. We nurture them, support them, and challenge them to grow...but then they do grow, and they leave us behind, and that's how it should be. Hopefully they never forget our love for them, but when they need help as teenagers, we are probably not going to be the people they run to. In their minds, we're from another lifetime. And so, there really isn't anything I should have done, or could have done, to save this student. I'm not sure if that makes it better or worse, honestly. But it's the truth.

I don't know where G-d fits into all of this, and I'm not going to try to figure it out. There's no way to explain this and I'm not interested at people's attempts to find one. What I want, instead, is this: I want this child to be wrapped in a Divine hug, for her tears to be dried and for her pain to be smoothed away. And I want her parents to come out of this, somehow, with some sense of healing over the gaping, raw wound in which they are currently enveloped. I don't know how that is going to happen; I don't know how one ever recovers from something like this, but as long as I'm praying, that's what I'm going to ask for.

That, and an ever-increasing capacity to love my students fully, to show them how very right they are, just as they are. I want every child I ever teach to look back on third grade and say, "That was the year I was loved by my teacher." That's all, and that's everything.