As I eat my breakfast every morning, I usually do some Facebook scrolling. Sometimes this helps my day to be that much brighter; other times, it just brings me down. Today my Facebook scroll darkened my mood. In no way do I blame any of my teacher friends for their posts today because we need a reminder of how connected each of us can become to our students. In interviews this week, Arnulfo Reyes, teacher at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, told his story of May 24, 2022. In one of the interviews, he told parents of the 11 students killed in his classroom, “‘I’m sorry. I tried my best from what I was told to do. Please don’t be angry with me.'” One of my former colleagues posted, “I heard wounded Uvalde teacher Arnulfo Reyes tearfully apologize to the parents of the 11 children in his care who died, asking them not to hate him. And it just about broke me.” Same. Reading his account is difficult enough. I have not been able to listen to the interview because I can only imagine the pain he is experiencing.
As I was reflecting on his story this morning, I could not get over the significance of the number 11. 11 students were in his classroom when the gunman entered, and 11 students were killed. Reyes was shot twice and has just recently recovered, but each of the 11 students in his classroom were killed. I cannot even comprehend the guilt that he feels for the loss of these children. The fact that he feels the need to apologize demonstrates the responsibility that we take on as teachers. Most of us call our students our kids. They become part of our extended family. We keep track of them through social media as they graduate from college, get married, and have their own kids. We cry with them when they lose parents, grandparents, pets. We rejoice with them when they announce new changes in their careers. We give them advice when they seek it. We remember how much they have grown in the years since they were in our classrooms.
In January of 2018, I lost one of my students to suicide. As a result of his suicide, I decided to temporarily stop teaching the course that he was in because I could not handle continuing to teach the curriculum that I had taught to him and his classmates. That school year, we read Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, and we were going to read Columbine by Dave Cullen in the spring. For months after his death, I could not shake the guilt that I felt for our reading list. Here was a young man struggling with so many hidden conflicts, and I assigned him to read books that were about broken young men. I felt guilty that I did not see the signs on the last day that he was in class. I remember seeing him in the hallway on the day before he died and asking if he was ok. He shrugged it off, as usual, and said that he was doing ok. I had noticed a decline in his typically upbeat and sarcastic attitude since Christmas break, but I did not ask any more questions. I have since carried the guilt with me. If I only dug a little deeper. If I only asked the right questions. If I only…
As I read Arnulfo Reyes’s account of the events of May 24, 2022 at Robb Elementary School, I can understand the guilt that he feels. I can understand why he has said that he will probably not return to teaching. I can understand why he feels that the training we receive as teachers will never be enough to prepare us for this type of tragedy. I can understand why he is angry and wants to see real change so that this cannot happen again.
This last school year, I worked with several wonderful groups of students. My twentieth year of teaching will be one of my favorites because I felt like I could teach without worrying about so many factors that affect my students on a day-to-day basis. Despite all of the great kids I worked with this year, one of the groups will always stand out in my mind. My 8th period class became like a family as the school year progressed, especially during the second semester. We laughed together, we learned together, we struggled together. As I was reflecting on Arnulfo Reyes’s interview this morning, I could not help but think about the fact that there were eleven students in my 8th period class: James. Sabra. Orion. Spencer. Olivia. Kim. Makenna. Luke. TJ. Blake. Logan. Eleven graduating seniors, ready to leave high school and take on the world. Eleven children preparing to enter the world of adulthood. I cannot imagine how I would feel today if the events of May 24, 2022 happened at my school two days before these students were finished with their senior year. I cannot imagine how I would feel, waking up in a hospital and learning that all eleven had been killed under my care. The guilt and shame would overwhelm me, and I would probably leave teaching.
Remember to be kind to those who are experiencing trauma. Be kind to those who are mourning. Grief is not linear. It leaves and then returns like a ghost waiting to haunt us. If you are grieving, give yourself the grace to heal. Give yourself permission to cry, laugh, run, dance, sleep, eat, play, read, game, write. There is no right way to deal with the shared trauma that we all have experienced over the last two years – COVID, social unrest, political divisiveness, shootings. If your grief causes you to stay the course, then do so with the strength you need. If your grief causes you to change direction, then do so with renewed hope and energy. As a good friend says, “Go and light your corner. The world is waiting for you.”