The Hard Realities of School

Last weekend I attended the memorial service for a former student.
His family members and friends took turns sharing how he had touched their lives with his kindness, curiosity, and creativity.

It was an outside gathering, and the cold November wind and bright sunshine of the afternoon both chilled and warmed us.

One of his teachers told a story about one day when the student had reached into his backpack and offered her an apple after a class period that had been especially hard for her. She took a photo of it and had used it as her profile picture for her emails since that day.

His art teacher discovered a painting he had done of a duck for a stamp contest. He had won a ribbon for honorable mention. I delivered it his mother who was touched to see another surprising memento of his creativity.

His friends explained how his love of art also extended to his ability as a tattoo artist. As an 18-year-old, he had made a reputation for himself and given lots of his friends their first tattoos.

One of his friends said of him so eloquently, “He touched our hearts. He was an artist, and our lives were his canvas.”

It is hard to put in words the sadness that comes with death–especially the death of students. And it so quickly puts everything else we do into proper perspective.

Educators have a lot of responsibilities, but few matter as much as just being present for the realities of life students face.

Sometimes that means celebrating with them when they have victories, and sometimes it means supporting them when they struggle or fail.

At the end of the day, it also reminds us how we often fret or stress over less significant to-do’s.

If you are like me, you expend a lot of energy on good things: ensuring your curriculum is preparing students to be college-career ready, understanding your school-wide goals, collaborating with colleagues, and maintaining accountability.

All of these are necessary parts of serving our students and school communities.

But none of these priorities means much when you’re standing in a crowd of people who need comfort and reassurance.

When we look back, those we have served probably won’t remember how well our students scored on state exams or the ACT.

What they will remember is if we cared.

Caring doesn’t require knowing the perfect words to say. Sometimes it’s just as simple as a hand on a shoulder or an “I’m so sorry.”

One of the girls who spoke at the memorial had known this student before he came to our school. She said, “I’m so glad he found a place to belong. At his old school, he didn’t fit in and was picked on all the time. It’s nice to know he finally found friends.”

As I watched our students handle grief this past week, I have been amazed at their ability to comfort one another. They signed banners, wore a favorite color in his memory, painted his initials on themselves for Friday night’s football game.

Here’s the amazing part: all of these efforts were done for a young man who attended our school for less than a year.

It’s hard to watch students grieve. But it’s also encouraging to know that in the midst of a world that is so often in turmoil, we can still witness sweet expressions of love, decency and compassion.

Schools aren’t perfect. They are communities of people from all walks of life.

As school leaders and educators, we can’t forget that our ability to make a difference is intimately connected to our ability to keep people, not projects or programs, our priority.

When we keep this in mind, our roles become more than jobs, they become callings.

Now It’s Your Turn
What are other ways you have seen teachers or students showing acts of kindness lately? Let’s remind each other of the positive reasons we love our schools.

Some Helpful Tips
Unfortunately, managing school grief is something my school has faced before. See my previous posts 8 Ways To Manage School Grief and Dealing With Media Pressure During Crisis for some practical how-to’s during tough times. If you have other suggestions or resources, please share in the comments below.

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William D. Parker
William D. Parker