A Saturday Caesura
Students filled the desks in my classroom again after almost three weeks of emptiness related to spring break and COVID-removals to online teaching. We were happy to be back, to see actual faces and whole bodies, to feel the comforting illusion of normalcy.
On Monday a few students needed a reminder that English class is for English, not for Bio or Math or CALM or Duolingo or searching for truck parts online. But mostly we read our books and experimented with odes and word sonnets and parsed gerunds and crafted truisms and raged at the unjust treatment of Jutta and cried real tears when Werner died and WHY WOULD THE AUTHOR DO THAT ANYWAY!
We talked about iambic pentameter and the plums no longer in the icebox. We practised the art of paying attention to our world and shared grad photos. We vented about COVID and named our aspirations for the future. We wondered why Monday always comes after Sunday and determined that we would never be careless people like Tom and Daisy. We blamed the masks for our shortness of breath after coming upstairs to Room 210 because farm girls could never be that out-of-shape. We made excuses for unfinished work and tried to complain about the sub in another class and satisfied the burning need to talk about how that novel ended.
About mid-week I realized that my plan to retire in three years (maybe?) means I would no longer have this messy delight of teenagers in my life.
I already feel the shape of emptiness forming in my heart. It is heavier than I ever thought it would be.
A Saturday Caesura
Working at home under self-isolation guidelines made for a quiet week. No bells. No hallway bedlam. No whispery undercurrent while I’m expounding the rules of subject-verb agreement. No bursts of laughter. No heated discussions. Just the ding dings of incoming mail and messages, my own voice the clatter of a Chromebook keypad.
Into this world of disrupted sound, I pause to listen. A train bellows its warnings (always 4 times). The neighbour’s broken-muffler car rumbles my sleep. Coyotes yelp at nothing and everything. Birds flutter and gossip at the feeder; geese honk on-the-wing. Water drip drips from the eaves, a gentle affront to the freezing silence of winter.
Into this percussion of life beyond isolation, I pause to play my piano (2 times), and the notes falter and trip, having endured their own long season of winter. My fingers search for a voice frozen by grief, hurt, discouragement. It’s a soft voice, hardly more than a pianissimo drip drip, but it is there and maybe spring will thaw this silence, too.
Being a teacher has hard days.
Today being a teacher meant
watching grade 12 boys
(as goofy as they come)
write caring, funny, meaningful messages
to our departing librarian.
enjoying a student
(from last semester no less)
randomly pop by to excitedly discuss
a book that deeply moved her.
listening to a student
(with warm tenderness)
share a plan for an essay about
her grandparents facing illness
and falling in love all over again.
seeing the pride and determination
(though sore and exhausted)
of my Block 5 ‘rugby girls’ who
collectively embody Shakespeare’s Hermia
“Though she be but little, she is fierce.”
observing a group conversation
(intelligent, insightful, respectful)
about the nuances of character and class
and setting and symbols
in a classic literary novel.
Today being a teacher meant being
on the front lines of viewing youth who are
And simply amazing.
Finalize lesson plans
Fiddle with technology
Flights of stairs
Photocopies x 1,052 (+\-)
Find a document
Foster more learning
Fix grammar errors
Forgot supervision (oops)
Flop on couch
Suicide letter assignment under review after risks highlighted
This story was brought to my attention yesterday and it has left me processing several emotions and thoughts. I do not know any more than what has been reported in the news, and it is not my intention to vilify the teacher involved, but there are some things I do know and need to say.
First, I am a high school English teacher, and I do know that literature is valuable for engaging readers in important conversations about life and the human experience. I do know that understanding character motivation and perspectives are standard outcomes in the curriculum I am required to teach. I do know that writing is an important skill and powerful tool for processing and synthesizing thoughts and ideas. I also know that audience, purpose and format are crucial considerations for all writing. This is also in the curriculum.
I’m wondering if assigning a suicide letter (regardless of how the assignment is being framed, this is in essence what it is) was indeed the best format for meeting these outcomes.
Second, I am not a statistician or a school counsellor, but what I do know is that in any given class I teach, approximately 10% of the students have written real suicide letters. Sometimes multiple letters. Some have attempted suicide. These are only the ones who have bravely shared this information with me; I am sure the actual percentage is much higher. I do know that our youth and young adults are struggling with very real issues related to depression and anxiety. They are at risk not only for suicide, but also for addictions and self-harm. I do know that we need to be having honest conversations about these issues in order to provide the knowledge and supports necessary to prevent them.
I’m wondering if we can use literature and writing as tools to help students wrestle with these issues in ways that provide a path to move beyond them rather than deeper into them.
And lastly, I am a parent who is in possession of a very real suicide letter. I do know that real suicide letters do not provide any tidy answers to numbered questions about motivation or even any meaningful insight into how the person actually felt about much of anything. I do know that they are so gut-wrenchingly painful to read that even now I am berefit of adequate descriptive words. I do know that the one in a manila folder in our files is my son’s last words; the last time I will ever see his distinctive handwriting; the last time he signed his name with its signature flourish on the J. I hate that letter and yet I cannot part with it.
I also know that real suicide letters that accompany the real death of a child result in parents having to write real eulogies and epitaphs. Both were by far the hardest things I have ever written. Both were as inadequate in summarizing a son so dearly loved as the suicide letter was in explaining why life had become unsustainable to him.
I’m wondering if we can find better ways to voice all the fear and pain and brokenness and love and care and affirmation and say all the words that suicide letters and eulogies and epitaphs can never say.