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.

5 thoughts on “We Move Forward but We Are Never the Same

  1. Thank you for sharing Dr. Hsieh. Paul sounds like he was a great kid and very loved. While change and loss are inevitable it doesn’t hurt any less. We are a lot richer as future teachers thanks to what you share with us beyond content of the course. Thank you again and muchos abrazos.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Antonio. Paul was a great kid and was very loved. Your words and thoughts mean a lot. 🙂

  2. For the love that you have within you that you continuously reflect to all those around you, I am grateful, because I am one of the many recipients of your care, your thoughtfulness, and fortitude. Love you.

  3. Dr. Hsieh, you have such a beautiful heart. I read this and felt like I knew Paul myself. I’m sure you left a great impact on him as he did on you. Thank you for sharing.

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