Last week a former student, graduate of 2008, died. It was an accident. It made me sad. And I thought about the other time I heard about a student’s death.

My first term teaching was miserable. I was at Columbus, 4 of 5 of my classes were difficult freshmen, and the 5th was repeaters. I was lousy, couldn’t manage the class, etc, etc.  The second term was worse. I was up to 5 freshman classes, and my control was not, as far as I could tell, even a drop better. The school, the programmer, they did a perfect job of matching weak kids with a weak teacher. In 9 out of 10 cases the teacher would have left before the kids dropped out. This was the tenth case.

I swore I would remember how miserable that first year was, so I could help people get through it easier. But now, 13 years later, it’s kind of blurry. When I walk in a room, I can imagine it going out of control, but it doesn’t happen. I imagine kids sneaking in and out the back door, but the actual events are far away.

But I remember a few key scenes. And I remember lots of the kids. Staphon was in my middle of the day class in, I want to say 437 or 439. I think the next teacher used to scold me for leaving the room such a mess. I sort of understood, but there was nothing I could do; at that point I was fortunate the papers were being dropped on the floor and not thrown at me. I remember Luis from that class. And Nick who played football and who I had again as a senior. And Cleveland whose education had been interrupted in his home country (or never started?)  Anthony, always hyper. And Elionor, I think, who sat near the back and helped me immensely by being my doorkeeper. Lorraine transferred into this class. And Yanay who did TKD. And 26 more.

Staphon passed. That was good. Weak kids + lousy new teacher $\rightarrow$ very few passing kids. And then that summer he was playing basketball, and he collapsed, and he died. I tried then to remember him. I see his face, I barely hear his voice (he answered quietly, perhaps trying not to show his accent). I remembered one funny line… kids asked what I was doing that first spring break “I’m going to Turkey” said me, and Staphon jumped in with “I’m going to KFC.”

Staphon’s family created some sort of scholarship in his honor, and Columbus has been giving it out every year. I wonder what will happen when Bloomberg and his chancellor succeed in destroying Columbus? Will Staphon be forgotten? (not by me)

Last week a former student died. An accident. She was just 20. I knew her all 4 years at my small school. I think she may have been in one of my electives senior year. But I am pretty certain that she was a service aide for me, once a week, as a senior. I remember her voice. How sweet she could be. And also her flashes (occasional) of temper. And who her friends were. And how she looked. And I knew a little about her first year, far away at college, and that she was back in New York this year. I can actually only recall one conversation, after she graduated, as she prepared to go west and we said goodbye.

She was my student more recently than Staphon. So the memory is fresher. She was in a small school. He was in a large school. But the intimacy of a small school does not matter here. I am saddened, twice. I try to remember.  I wonder who else remembers, or will remember. I am worried about his scholarship. And for her, I hope we plant something special.

7 Comments leave one →
July 6, 2010 am31 9:39 am 9:39 am

Two deaths, both accidental, from the thousand plus of students I’m estimating you’ve had. And how sad to think that it could be worse, that they could have been among the 31 Chicago Public Schools students who died this year as a result of gunshots.

But back to the faces. I remember so many students, even ones I’ve never taught, and they remember me. I run an afterschool program where kids come and go, and I can’t tell you how many of them will come up to me on the subway to say hello. I’m always impressed that they can pull my face out of a crowd. And it’s impressive that you can do that, too.

• July 7, 2010 pm31 9:18 pm 9:18 pm

Sometimes it’s the face, or a phrase, a gesture, a look, sometimes a classroom story around something academic, sometimes around something else – but they stay with you We don’t forget many kids.

I guess you are more remarkable right? More kids for less time each?

2. Ellen W. permalink
July 8, 2010 pm31 5:13 pm 5:13 pm

Thank you for mentioning this- when my elementary school remodeled a few years back they were considering removing the oak tree out front because no-one could remember the child who had died in whose memory it had been planted. Thankfully one of the teachers remembered that my mother might know and she was able to get the school in contact with the child’s family- he had died of leukemia when he was 10 and he was remembered at school not just because he had died, but because school was his favorite thing when he was alive; his mother would carry him into class when he lost the ability to walk because he refused to stay home. So they moved the tree and re-dedicated it with a new, bigger plaque telling his story.

I mention this because in some ways the classmates of those lost students rely on their teachers and the school to remember and it’s brutal to think they might forget.

3. July 10, 2010 pm31 3:20 pm 3:20 pm

It’s always hard when kids die – more so when they’re ones you know well, of course. Not the year gone but the one before our school had a teacher die in the November, two kids (about to graduate) in the May and a third (from the same class) in July. The atmosphere was… well, you can maybe guess.

4. July 13, 2010 am31 11:21 am 11:21 am

I’ve only experienced a student’s death once (killed by a javelin, of all things, between gym classes in a London grammar school I was working in), but here’s something I remember even more vividly.

A boy I taught in a middle school special ed music class about 15 years ago had speech problems, was unkempt and not physically attractive, and had some very off-putting mannerisms that stemmed mostly from his lack of muscular control. I felt bad for him at the time, but not being the full-time teacher in his self-contained class, I worked with (and around) him to the extent that I could two periods a week.

Last year on the no.6 train I saw him panhandling, now a full grown man and in worse condition still. I sunk way down in my seat not knowing what I would do if he had recognized me.

There are times we do our absolute best for our students, and yet things still don’t work out for them.