Ever since the fall holidays life has done its best to show me that there is pain out there and as a cautionary reminder of the fact that I must have had too little of it in my life for the past weeks, pain hit close to home.
One of my students died during the holidays. He was only 16. He got drunk, couldn´t hold his liquor, got kicked out of a club, wanted to go home by train, his friends left him at the station to find a missing wallet. And my student climbed onto the tracks, wanting to walk home, got hit by a train and died.
I received an email about a week later, stating in a matter-of-fact tone that missed any form of respectful empathy that my student had died and that the class teacher would talk to the class first thing Monday morning.
I was left alone with the pain.
He wasn´t one of my favorite students. To be honest, I liked that he was studious and quiet, but he never really showed up on my radar in these nine weeks I taught him. He was a good kid, I´m sure of it. I don´t know much about him, other than he didn´t like English very much (a fact I accepted, but was determined to change). The class teacher lit a candle with the class and encouraged them to pray for him, but nothing was done for all the teachers who had taught him.
When I walked into the class the first time on Friday, I didn´t know what to do. I had thought long and hard about this, but up until the point where I actually stood in front of the class, I didn´t know what to do or say.
So I told them that loss is part of life and that I had lost too many people this year alone and that I´m still struggling with the fact. And I mentioned him by name and made two girls cry and I talked some more and one of the students who was with him that night told me to stop. And then he told me to go on.
No one had really talked to them all week. No one had mentioned his name. They called him The Deceased or Your Former Classmate. They hadn´t talked to them about the circumstances of his death or let the kids see into their hearts. They had left after five minutes of pressured mourning with the impression that everything was good now that they had lit a candle and that life would simply go on now.
As if nothing had happend.
And the girls that cried said that they couldn´t really comprehend the fact that he wouldn´t come to school anymore, even though they weren´t friends with him. And the boys said that he was a nice guy and that they didn´t know what to say.
They all looked at me then and I had this feeling that I had to give them answers, that I had to show them how to magically cope with all their pain and that not being able to put it into words would soon change. And I felt this weight on my shoulders and 28 kids staring at me, saying, you are the grown-up, you are the responsible one here. Tell us what to do.
I felt my voice breaking when I told them that there was no easy answer, no already laid out plan for them to follow to make it through their pain. I told them that they were entitled to feel pain, whether they had been friends with him or not. I said that being confused and angry and sad and happy and not knowing how one can be angry and happy at the same time was absolutely ok. I tried to tell them that there were no rules to how you react to death and that grieving was a process and that they should make sure they had people around them whom they could confide in. And that my door was always open to them.
And then there was the silence.
Not the weird kind of silence that you may have experienced as a student when you are shown a glimpse of the life of a teacher and you have this arkward feeling that he or she is just a normal person, too, a feeling you are not sure what to do with. It was the good silence. The kind of silence that stops the pain for a second, where you can finally breathe in and out freely, the kind of silence where no words are needed to explain what you feel or think.
And after a while, one of my students said he doesn´t want to read the book (Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo), because he wasn´t ready to deal with this kind of depressive onlook onto life and death and if I didn´t know any other book we might read that also talked about everything they were going through, minus the needles and the cold desciption of people dying.
We are now reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Four of my students came to me during recess and, though hesitantly, talked to me about things that made them angry and sad and happy.
I keep thinking about this moment in class. I showed my students a piece of my heart that is incredibly difficult for me to comprehend as well. I´m not sure it was the right thing to do, but it felt right in that moment. Becoming a teacher in Germany takes about seven years. In those seven years, no one prepared me for things like that. No one prepared me for the pain that I´m confronted with, the problems being unearthed when you pay attention. No one tells you what do to.
I guess I´m also entitled to feel pain. And I have shared my pain with my students and hope I somehow managed to lift the load off their shoulders. If only for a moment.