Tomorrow is the first day of school. No first day of school has been the same since June 7, 2005. That was the day that one of my students, Christina Spirito, committed suicide. That day changed what being a teacher meant to me. It changed what was important. It changed who I was. I cannot, just cannot get over the guilt of having “missed it.” The reports said that she was working on a school project when she killed herself. That was my project.
Since her death, I look at each kid much differently. I look for Christina. I look for those signals I missed. What I ended up finding, are signals that I was never aware of. Kids had been talking to me for years but I had failed to hear them because I was too busy talking to them to listen. I missed their words, and most importantly missed the many other non-verbal messages that they sent.
I didn’t just find kids contemplating suicide, but dealing with so many other things…the death of a grandparent, parents losing jobs, mothers with cancer diagnoses, divorces shredding loved ones, homes being foreclosed, parents beating the crap out of them, and how could I ever have missed the pain from the death of their puppies.
At my favorite beach there is a terrible riptide. If you are not aware of it it will kill you. One person died the day after my family visited this summer. One person died at a beach that is beautiful on the surface, with no obvious clues to a deadly current below the surface. All of these problems that are hidden in my class form a riptide. I used to wonder how many kids could enter our beautiful classroom only to be swept away by failure.
Why when everything seemed perfect on the surface, why would things end up so badly for some? After my 8 year old daughter read the article about the man’s death at the beach (his son survived), she looked up and simply said, “Why didn’t he listen to the signs?” Maybe he missed them, maybe he ignored them, maybe he didn’t understand what they meant. He does now, and so do I.
I will never be able to catch all of the signals. There will always be a riptide in my classroom that I am not aware of. There will always be kids sending me signals, and sometimes I will still be too busy to stop and listen. But I try. The one neat thing about being a teacher is eventually you do get another first day of school. Another fresh start. Another chance to tweak what you did last year. Another year to do what you do a little better. Each year, I get to rewind, learn from the previous year, do things a little bit differently, a little bit better, and get one more chance to dive into the riptide and save Christina.