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A Teacher's Reflection: Grief

Six summers ago, I visited a student whose brother had accidently shot himself. “Raymond” had been in his room with his younger brother, my student, and a few friends when he was examining a gun that misfired. “Chauncey” was truly traumatized by what he witnessed in the room that day. I visited the family and spent time with Chauncey and his mother as they reflected on their brother and son’s life and the incident that led to the death of their loved one. There were questions they needed to have answered from themselves and Raymond.

When the school year began about a month later, students were still grieving over the death of someone they loved and admired. To express their grief, students began to compose songs, record them, and post them on YouTube. Some people viewed the “group” who was recording the videos as a gang while students simply viewed it as a means to grieve. Students pleaded with me to be a voice to their grief because they felt they were being attacked and wrongly accused. I sympathized with students because I knew their way of grieving was something out of the realm of what mainstream America comprehends grief to be. At the same time, I sympathized with those who saw it as a gang because they were charged with peacekeeping and the safekeeping of students.

I counseled students on how their behavior could be viewed as gang related while trying to be a voice for them. I thought that people who were in a position to help them should initiate more conversations to better understand their grief and culture. I also thought that students should have been more vocal about their feelings of losing Raymond and desire to express their love and grief. Through conversations with both groups, I realized that fear and mistrust existed between the groups.

Prior to the end of the school year, another violent death occurred in Chauncey’s community. Students were once again confronted with another ACE, adverse childhood experience. I remember the day after the funeral as if it was yesterday. It has shaped my life, teaching and parenting actions, and the way I interact with grieving students since then.

I was the inclusion teacher in a pre-algebra class and was saying to the students that they needed to focus on their assignment. I approached one female student and pleaded, “You really need to get to work.” She looked up at me with tears in her eyes as I read the numbness in her face. She simply said, “I can’t Mrs. Cooper.” I looked down at her notebook and the saw the obituary of her cousin in her binder. It was at that moment that I realized all the pain the student and members of her community had been dealing with all school year long.

Some students had experienced the second death of a family member they had so dearly loved and admired. Raymond’s death was still being grieved when the death of the second member of their community refreshed the emotions they had worked so hard to manage to focus on their school work. I listened to students as they talked about their grief, uncertainty about life, their desire to use sports to escape the community they so loved, the uncertainty of whether or not their community would ever be the safest place to live and raise a family, and how they felt misunderstood on many levels in society. I listened as they talked about an America they believed was against them in every way.

I watched as students were separated from classrooms and school because their defiance, disrespect, and noncompliance were viewed as a disruption to the school environment instead of a cry for help. I felt convicted and disempowered when I asked students to leave my classroom due to disruptions that interfered with the education of their peers. Many days I expressed my conflictions and pondered them with my mother and father because I did not know what to do about behaviors that were signs of a mental health issue instead of a behavior issue. I also knew that schools did not have the personnel to help our students with the level of support they needed to elevate beyond the security/stability level on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Tomorrow our city will celebrate another life that ended too soon. Reflections about the life that ignited every room she entered and energized people in her presence will be shared in a more formal way instead of an informal way. “She had so many talents,” her older sister reminisced, “that she really didn’t know what she should focus on.” One mother wrote in her Facebook post that she felt disempowered because her son was crying over the loss of his friend. Other Facebook posts depicted colleagues of her singing, dancing, enjoying friends, posing in the mirror to take selfies, and being with her family. News reports shared her picture and interviews from family members who talked about the event of her death and the how much she will be missed. So much love has been expressed over the life that was lost due to gun violence.

We will celebrate “Aisha’s” life tomorrow who, a beautiful who was a member of Chauncey’s community. Her older siblings were friends with Chauncey and knew Raymond, and another point will be added to their ACE scores and the scores of the students in our community.

The school that Aisha attended offered grief counseling for student who wanted and needed the support, a step in the direction of healing. The only advice I would give to counselors is to go into the community instead of having the students come to the school; transportation was an issue for most of them accessing the serivce. Being available in the safety of the front or back yard would carry a more significant message of understanding forged by a connection to their pain. You need not fear for your safety because students who feel you have their best interest at heart will secure it for you; trust me, I have learned that in many ways. Hopefully a wish will come true whereas the counseling will be offered throughout next school year for both students and teachers. “Her death has brought back all the memories of other students who died too soon,” one colleague expressed. Any time people experience an early death of a member of their community and school, it leaves a mark of questioning. Teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, teacher assistants, shadows, custodians, secretaries, bookkeepers, and students ask themselves if there was something else they could have done to prevent the tragedy. I am asking myself that every question right now.

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