Bad news stinks, and getting bad news at work really stinks. But for most people, temporary solace lies behind the door of an empty office or in a walk around the block or, as a last resort, a quick cry in the lavatory stall.
When bad news arrives in a teacher's inbox, solace is harder to find. There are all those students - lots of eyes, lots of needs, lots of questions, and they need their teachers to be present and emotionally in tact. If my students get freaked out by seeing me in the grocery store buying toilet paper, you can imagine how upsetting it would be for them to see me come emotionally unglued. Teachers learn to keep their highs and lows to themselves, to remember that the kids have to come first. Students depend on their teachers to be stable, and like a parent protecting her children from the boogeyman, a source of strength and courage.
There's so much I could not have anticipated about this job when I signed my first contract. Late night phone calls, crying students, crying parents - I didn't enter this profession lightly, but I did underestimate the challenges inherent in being under a microscope all day long. Students look to their teachers for all kinds of support, and often we have to subvert our own emotional impulses in order to help them manage theirs.
The first year I taught full-time, my best friend died very suddenly. She had battled depression for years, but her final trip into the abyss proved to be too much for her, and she took her own life. The morning after I got the phone call from her housemate, I taught. My eyes were swollen and I had to excuse myself a couple of times and just stand out in the hall by myself, but I made it through that day without breaking down in front of my students.
Two years later, 9/11 played out, and we acted as parent, therapist, EMT and crowd control, as we were all they had when the bad news hit. The teachers and staff wanted to freak out, but we couldn't. The students looked were watching, and if we held it together, they stood a much better chance of holding it together.
This morning, I sat down to run the sixth grade homeroom, and the little red "new email" dot appeared on my toolbar at the bottom of the screen. Tim was traveling to his clinic in Manchester, so I checked quickly to make sure it wasn't an emergency. Unfortunately, the subject line "Mom" and the sender, my mother-in-law, were all I needed to see to grasp the news of that email. My grandmother-in-law has been very ill, and while we thought she had about a week left, she died this morning.
I got the email just as our regular homeroom routine was beginning - psalm, moment of silence, flag. Yes, psalm. Crossroads Academy is not a religious school, but we consider biblical literacy (along with all other subjects of cultural literacy) to be one of the most important elements of our students' education, regardless of any personal religious conviction.
I am not a religious person. I do, however, love words, and today's psalm, 139, held some nice moments for me, particularly the part about being truly known.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Being known was comforting to me, as I was in the middle of faking happiness in the middle of my private sorrow. Thanks to the current cold and flu season, there are boxes of tissues spread all over my classroom, and I hid my sadness behind the facade of a cold. I covered pretty well, so well done, me. I successfully ushered the sixth graders through the pledge of allegiance, and they headed off to history class. As a reward for my stoicism, I allowed myself a couple of minutes of unrestrained tears in the middle school office before blowing my nose, taking a deep breath, and teaching composition class. Grammy Eileen would have liked that transition. She was a kick-ass writer, and she would have told me to buck up, get my butt in there and teach those kids how to use a darn comma.
Middle school students are rumored to be self-absorbed, selfish, and so hopelessly awash in hormones that they can hardly see past the end of their pimply noses. Sometimes, this is true. But sometimes, they know. Sometimes they leave notes on their teacher's desks, wishing them a good day. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, they know me.