We Move Forward but We Are Never the Same

It’s 3:05 in the morning and I’ve been up for almost an hour thinking about Paul. Tomorrow, it will be one year since he died, at school, of a heart attack, during PE.  And I can’t sleep because the tidal wave of grief has come upon me this morning.

It started out as a normal school day, but by 2nd period, there was something clearly wrong.  Our vice-principal and PE staff asked us to keep our students from going around the back.  There was an incident at PE. Paul had collapsed playing basketball.  It was our group of 8th graders that had been out at PE and as they came to class, there were conflicting stories of how it happened. He had tripped chasing a ball; he had fallen; he had hit his head in the fall. But many of them had seen Paul on the ground and had rushed over.  My colleagues were first responders, administering CPR, staying with him as they waited the eternity of seconds, minutes, for the ambulances to arrive.

Meanwhile, we classroom teachers didn’t know what was going on, really. Ushering students into my second period classroom, I remember telling them that it was going to be okay, that they were getting Paul the help he needed.  I remembered praying that what I was saying was true, and knowing that it had to be. I had talked to Paul the day before, joked with him about not saying hi to me when he passed in the hallway. Everything had to be okay. Everything was going to be okay.

But, by 3rd period, it was clear that everything wasn’t okay. They had some emergency counseling staff there.  Kids began asking to leave class to talk to the counselors. Our school counselor came to each teacher as we stood at our doors during passing period, in a hushed voice, that they hadn’t been able to resuscitate Paul, but that we shouldn’t tell the kids yet.  And then the bell rang. And I had to face my kids. And I had to see them making “Get well soon, Paul” cards and posters. I knew it wasn’t going to be okay.  And I wasn’t okay.  But, I had been asked to pretend I was okay for my kids, whom I loved.

By the time our vice-principal came into my room to confirm the news to the students, most of them already knew.  The students in the counseling room had been told first and they did what 8th graders do, hit social media immediately on their phones, posting “RIP Paul” on Facebook and began texting the news to those who hadn’t yet heard it.  Most of them were not strangers to loss, even at 14. They had seen older siblings or cousins, neighborhood friends or acquaintances die due to violence.

But, this was different. Paul wasn’t supposed to die at school, at PE, playing a pick-up game of basketball.  He was the captain of the football team.  He was the little boy trapped in a big man’s body.  He was a gentle giant who loved math, his girlfriend, his family and his friends.  This wasn’t supposed to happen.  Everything was supposed to be okay.

Because of my position, I didn’t teach 5th and 6th period, so I went to the counseling room to be with the kids.  We hugged and cried together and made preliminary plans for memorials.  But at that point, we were still in disbelief.  Somewhere in the middle of those periods, our principal called an assembly for the 8th graders and officially announced the news again, saying that there would be counseling at school until the end of the week for students.  We all just sat there at the assembly, numb, lost, alone but together with our memories of Paul.  Then he dismissed us and many of us just walked, like zombies back to classrooms where no one knew what to say or what to do.  It was the longest school day ever and yet no one felt like they could leave when the last bell rang.  If you left and went home, it was real, and we were in that state of grief where you know that it’s real but you don’t KNOW that it’s real.

The rest of the week and into the next, I threw my energy into supporting the kids, organizing a balloon memorial for the school, getting donations from the community, attending the candlelight vigil, the viewing and the funeral.  Although the week following Paul’s death was Spring Break, I worked all week to develop a support plan for students when they returned after the break.  I knew grief well.  I knew it wouldn’t just go away. I knew it wasn’t going to be okay.

We hobbled through the rest of the school year, but we were never quite the same. From colleagues who had to take leave for PTSD to myself and students just randomly breaking out into open sobbing when we heard Paul’s favorite song played over the announcements to planting a tree in Paul’s honor in the school’s garden and honoring him at graduation, we worked hard to move forward, to honor our grief and ourselves, but were never the same.

Tomorrow, it will be one year. I have moved 500 miles away and begun teaching teachers instead of 8th graders.  But, I have not forgotten.  Tomorrow, I will go to work in the morning and wear blue to remember Paul; then I will go to my mother’s grave and place flowers there with blue balloons to match those that my students will leave at the flagpole in Paul’s memory.  Tomorrow, I will hug my son a little tighter. I will remind others to be kind to one another and cherish life.  I will keep moving forward but I will never be the same.

A Recipe for Giving and Receiving Feedback: Add a spoonful of sugar; Take with a grain of salt

I teach and I blog.

And, for me, both of these arenas are places of personal vulnerability because I choose to put myself into my teaching and into my writing.  The thing about both teaching and blogging is that, for people like myself, they make something extremely personal something extremely public.  And, given that I am somewhat of a literacy scholar, I know that making something public means letting it go and having other dialogically respond to it–for better or for worse.

The other day, however, I was reading a blog from someone I follow on twitter.  The blog was a deeply personal account about some of the personal and professional struggles she faced in her current career trajectory.  I had a deep respect for the author in being so vulnerable and was SHOCKED to read scathing critique of both the author’s personal choices and her personal views on the type of professional position she sought.  This reminded me of the backlash of comments levied against Liza Long, who authored the viral blog “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother”  shortly after the Sandy Hook shootings.  Without knowing or speaking to this mother, people who read the blog felt compelled to judge this writer and other mothers dealing with children who struggle with mental illness.  (BTW, PBS did a follow-up talking with Long and her son, a link to which can be found here).  Reading the comments on these blogs frustrated me, but they also made me incredibly wary as to the amount of honesty and vulnerability one can truly put out there without becoming a target.  And, honestly, that made me sad.  Through sharing similar to those found in these deeply personal blogs, other people in similar positions find inspiration and courage, but only if bloggers continue to feel safe to share.

This blog isn’t SO personal and I’ve never received harsh feedback, so why bring this up now?  I started out this blog by noting that I teach as well as blogging.  For some assistant professors (and maybe even for some teachers), teaching might not be so personal, but for me, teaching has always been a labor of love.  Perhaps this is because I started teaching in an urban middle school, and have always been strongly committed to social justice, partnership with my students and personal actions that would help students to learn and grow, both academically and personally.  So, when I get up to lecture, I feel like I’m putting myself on the line, every time.   I worry about whether students will like me and appreciate the strategies I am there to present.

Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.  More often than not, students walk away with something more than they’ve come in with, but I know that not every strategy will fit every student’s teaching identity, content area, or style, so I’ve learned to take feedback with a grain of salt, particularly critical feedback.  It still stings (perhaps I rub that grain of salt in the wound of hurt pride ;)) but it’s something that I think pushes me to grow.  Sometimes it’s a shove and sometimes, it’s a gentle nudge.  I prefer the gentle nudges, but I acknowledge that I chose academia so I’m prepared for my share of shoves.

So, what’s the point? Well, as a teacher, a blogger, and a citizen, I have to put in my two cents about feedback.  And, what I have to say about feedback (and what I attempt to model in my own feedback to students) is this: acknowledge intention and find something authentically positive to say before you rip into a person, a strategy, an experience, or an idea.  I’m not saying to change your position or agree with something that’s completely against your worldview.  What I’m asking you to remember is that there is a person behind the blog you’re reading; the strategy you’re seeing; the idea you’re hearing — a real life, flesh and blood person, who has taken a risk in putting him/herself out there in some way.  And maybe their grammar isn’t perfect, their ideas aren’t completely sound, or their tone is offensive, but do you really win them over by your critique? The world has enough negativity.  People are afraid enough to say and stand for who they are.  If someone has the courage to share with you authentically about who they are, you could at least have the decency to acknowledge that risk and their attempts to contribute to the conversation.

I believe in constructive dialogue, but I believe it only can happen when no one is so triggered by the other person’s comments that they feel like they have to defend themselves and they speak from a place of reaction rather than from a place of conviction.  So, remember, before you hit your comment button, ask yourself if you’ve considered the risk the writer took in publishing a piece of themselves and if you’ve considered the impact that your words might have on another human being. And, if you have, feel free to give them that gentle nudge, as we all can grow through sharing our different perspectives.