Tuesday afternoon, I received the message no educator ever wants to get in their lifetime: A student has died. More specifically, a student I had taught and coached and ribbed and soothed and loved — decided to end her life.
And so, my world changed a bit. It shifted. Things were no longer quite as reasonable as they’d seemed yesterday. Six hours previously, I’d been changing a diaper and bouncing a ball into my kid’s face and trying to eat something that resembled “moderately healthful” for breakfast and my student was being discovered by her mother and younger brother, dead by her own hand.
The world stopped turning. Not when it should have, I thought; not in the morning hours that J. ceased to breathe during, but rather, hours later when the message came through. It stopped turning, and since then, it’s been rotating backward or sideways or at a crawl barely recognizable as motion at all.
She’s dead. She’s dead. She’s dead. — This thought is hammered into my brain at least a dozen times a day, while I am heating pureed vegetables for Henry’s lunch or watching the sun dip below the unobstructed horizon or kissing my husband’s cheek before he heads out the door. As life continues to inhale and exhale around me, J.’s cessation comes to me at seemingly random moments, knocking the wind from the pit of my stomach.
It’s a queasy feeling, an uncertainty that I’m ill prepared for at 28 years old. The math is easy, she is — she was — ten years younger than me, on the cusp of womanhood. She was supposed to live another 80 years, outlasting me and all of her other teachers. We should have received invitations to her high school graduation, we should have watched her perform her serious solo at State forensics, we should have heard about her career and her marriage and her kids.
We should not have been preceded in death by this student. No teacher should ever be preceded in death by any student.
It’s perverse, this reversal of universal Rightness, and I cannot find a way to correct the problem in my brain. I’ve balled it up and tried shoving it into discreet nooks and crannies but my mind refuses the intrusion, pushing the knowledge forth and springing it open again — She’s gone.
And while it feels like a sucker punch delivered to the kidneys over and over and over again, I know that soon my world will resume as normal. I will think of her less frequently, though never not altogether; I’ll somehow go days and then weeks and months at a time without wondering who she would be or where she would be or how many lives she would have made different just by smiling in someone’s direction . . . and I feel guilty at this acknowledgement. Because for me, the sucker punches will come to an end and remembering will be more of a dull ache of remorse; but for her family, those punches will only keep coming. And coming. And coming.
I wish I could put my arm around J. now, and just hold her. I wish I could tell her, I wish I had told her — I was in your shoes, once upon a time. I tried. More than once. And I’m so very glad I failed, because damn, does it get better.
I wish I could tell her that her suicide has left me reeling, even though we only knew each other for a few years and I really have no right to this profound grief given my minimal impact on her world, but I’m reeling nonetheless and so many others are, too — the community is collectively sighing this sob of remorse and anger and hurt.
I wish I could confirm what I know she had to wonder — Yes, you will be missed. You are. You are. You are.
But I cannot do any of these things because J. is gone, she’s dead, and those things we do not say cannot be saved for better moments.
For now, this will have to suffice. Goodbye, dear one. Goodbye.