P is for…

I have known what P was going to stand for for quite awhile. Last May we met with teachers from one of the high schools to which we feed. I left the meeting so defeated. As the year came to a close, I felt discouraged by the messages received by my students for their placement in classes, (but kind of in a good way). P was going to be all about placement.

But then something happened.

Yesterday we were called in after school to learn the news that a parent had died unexpectedly. This afternoon I sat in church for a prayer service trying to process a bunch and I realized that P had just become for prayer because I had to get out some thoughts. (BTW – this is sad and long and rambling and you can probably just skip reading it. I just needed to process and this was what I had).

I went to my first funeral when I was in 8th grade. It was during school. It was for my best friend Shannon’s grandfather. We had had a classmate die when we were in 3rd grade. When he died he was no longer at our school. I remember that and I think about him every time I drive by his neighborhood, but I don’t remember how we responded. But I can see clearly our class sitting together in the back of Shannon’s grandpa’s funeral. It may seem weird that we went as a class to a funeral, but in Catholic school, that’s just what you do. When shit happens, you pull together, and you pray together.

I think most people probably know that I teach in a Catholic school. I don’t hide that. I mention it often. But I am very wary about talking about it amongst my twitter people. I harbor (among many others) an insecurity that people are anti- Catholic school in some way. Like with all the school choice stuff, I worry that people see me as part of the “them” in an us against them argument. No one has ever said anything like that, but you know… I worry. I feel a little bit of personal attack when some shitty thing happens, people say, “thoughts and prayers…” and my friends go ape shit over it. I get it. In the face of terrorism, thoughts and prayers absolutely aren’t enough. But maybe for many, it’s all they know and it’s better than nothing (this is not a political statement or anything and people in positions of power definitely need to do more than this. I get it). But when people are so dismissive, I do take it kind of personally. I am not at all super religious. Yes I go to Mass every weekend, but I’m not blind to the fact that, like with anything, the Church has some issues. I have more questions than answers. Trust me. My twitter life is interesting in this regard. I have spent 35 of my 39 years in Catholic schools- it’s all I’ve known. What goes with this is that the majority of people I’ve known in my life are pretty much like me. My #mtbos family is, to me at least, extremely diverse. I respect different people’s different religions or lack thereof. I actually am really interested in learning about different religions. But I sometimes worry there are people who are dismissive of religion. It just makes it an interesting place for me to spend time sometimes. Anyway…. weird unplanned tangent there….

Sept. 11, 2001. I’d been a teacher for, oh… 5 or 6 days (like, literally). I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was teaching in the Boston suburbs. The suburb in which I taught was home to TJX Co. One of the planes out of Boston held a huge group of their employees. You can imagine. We were not able to tell the students what was going on. I’m not sure I could have anyway. That was definitely a message for 5th graders to hear from their parents, not a 23 year old girl who could not even process what was happening. That night I sat with my roommate, a NYer, as she answered call after call from her NY friends. Her boyfriend was over. His dad, who worked in the towers, had gone to work late for the first time ever. He was ok. I waited to hear from my parents who were arranging for my brother to get out of NYC, where he was visiting for the first time ever, and at least get to Boston, since he couldn’t fly home. The HS friend he was visiting lost his girlfriend that morning. And as we sat there, we couldn’t escape the wondering of what would happen the next day. How was I to go in and face these little faces who would now grow up in an entirely different world than I did? How could I help them to cope when I couldn’t cope myself? But in the morning, we started our day in the Church. We prayed together. We prayed for strength to get through whatever was to come. We prayed for the lives lost. We prayed for understanding. And I prayed for the Holy Spirit to give me some sense of how to help these little 5th graders. It was in the Church that morning that I learned that, while you need to be strong for your students, it’s ok for them to see you cry and to see you be human. I remember Katelyn’s mom coming over at the end of Mass and wrapping her arms around me as I sobbed and sobbed.

When we were called into the faculty room yesterday and given the devastating news of the parent’s passing, I was, of course, terribly sad for the family. I currently have one child in 6th grade, had another for 2 years (he’s a freshman), and there is a younger sister. Others were visibly upset, but I sat feeling somewhat blank. As I drove home and talked to my mom, of course I was thinking about the 2 boys I’ve had in class and how their world is forever changed. My mom is the one who kind of made the connection back to 9/11 and the unsettled grief of that day. I’ve dealt with family deaths of my students, but most (maybe all?) of those were after a long illness. No less sad, just different. I didn’t have any tears (and with me, there are ALWAYS tears). I actually kind of wondered what was wrong with me that I wasn’t feeling anything other than sadness for the family.

We met as a staff this morning to have a game plan. What would we and would we not talk about? Would we go to Mass at 8am? Grief counselors were brought in. The other math teacher (who is also the 6th grade homeroom teacher – the grade of one of the kiddos) and I made a plan to allow her to keep her class together as much as possible. But then… we just went to class. It felt weird. When my 8th grade came, nothing was said and we went about our business. Sixth came and one of the boys asked me to sign a card for his friend. That was it. The day was very normal.

I went into the office before lunch and saw 2 parents of classmates of the freshman boy. I consider these 2 moms friends, so we hugged and chatted for a few minutes. The tears finally came to my eyes at this point. At the end of the day, as you do in Catholic school, we gathered together in the Church for a prayer service. The family was in attendance. As soon as I saw the freshman boy, I pretty much lost it. I could no longer contain any emotions.Of course, here I am in a Church filled with all my students and most of their parents. I’m supposed to be the strong one. I’m supposed to be there for the kiddos. But man…. no way. As we went through the prayer service I couldn’t even look in the direction of my students or the family. I was just so sad.

But at the same time, it was such a powerful statement of community. There were so many families in attendance. Even a few of the students from last year’s class were there with their parents in support. This family is so well loved and will have no shortage of support. At the end of the prayer service, out of the corner of my eye I caught a mom of an 8th grader move up from the back of the Church to sit with and comfort her son. There was something so heartbreakingly beautiful about it. As cool as they try to be, they are still such innocent kiddos dealing with sadness and loss. When the classes were going back to the school the 8th graders left last. Many of the boys have been on teams with the freshman son and the father had been a coach for many of them. One by one, those who felt called went and greeted their friend, his mom, and siblings with deep, meaningful hugs – most of them with tears in their eyes. Once again, I found the moment so heartbreaking, but also so heart warming. I wanted to go say hi to the family – especially the freshman boy who will always stand out in my memories of students gone by. I just didn’t know if I had the strength to do it without totally falling apart again. Finally, I walked over there and greeted each of the kiddos and the mom with a giant hug. But like, what do you even say? There are no words that I can offer that will lessen their grief. It’s just about knowing we are there for them, I suppose.

What I did know, however, was that I felt very lucky that I am in a place where we can respond in the way we did. Because I have only known schools like this, it’s just natural. In the morning it was like, well of course we’ll have a prayer service. I can’t imagine what it must be like to deal with these tragedies in schools where prayer isn’t the first reaction. I know there are other ways to deal with grief, but this is the only one I know. Maybe there are people who say that prayer doesn’t actually do anything. But what I know, going all the way back to 8th grade and Shannon’s grandpa’s funeral, is that having a way to come together and support the family, brings comfort.

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