Before December 10, 2013, I had experienced bad “teacher days.” I think we all have. One of the kids, or a lot of the kids, are just really off from the moment the opening bell rings; a team meeting doesn’t go well; you have a heated debate with a colleague; a parent meeting doesn’t turn out the way you hoped. You know.
And before December 10, I had hit some teaching milestones. I earned tenure. I had my first child, enjoying an extended maternity leave I had only witnessed others do. I made my 10-year teaching mark. I hosted a student teacher who has since gone on to do amazing things. My first class ever graduated in 2012. (Although I was no longer teaching in that district by this time, I went to their graduation and saw them receive diplomas. It was awesome.)
I have not yet experienced the worst day of my life. I am extremely lucky.
December 10 was no exception.
I would never say that December 10, 2013 was the worst day of my life. It wasn’t. I have enough clarity to know that. That suffering belongs to the friends and family of the child who died. Not me, one of his many teachers. So let’s get that straight from the start. I know my place. As far as my teacher life goes, December 10 was the worst day I’ve ever had. That was a day that I will never forget, one that I hope to never repeat, and selfishly, one that I hope never happens to me personally as a parent because that’s just too much hell.
December 10 also marked a milestone that we teachers all know exists, but hope to the highest power it isn’t one we ever experience.
December 10 began as it normally does on any given school day. I woke up, I drank my coffee as I read a few chapters in whatever book I was into at the time, went about the routines of getting my family out of bed and on the move for their days ahead, got myself ready, and went to school. Nothin’ to it.
Usually I turn on my computer when I arrive to the classroom. I probably did that day, too. But I did not open my email as I usually do. I remember that. I don’t know why I didn’t, I just didn’t.
I finally did open it when my students were in class, settled, and reading at their desks, waiting for the morning announcements to begin. After, we would take care of lunch orders and meet for our beloved Morning Meeting.
The first email I saw was titled, “Student death at the high school.” Upon opening it, I discovered that a student at the high school had died, and staff was directed to let administration know if details were needed. I thought that was strange because unfortunately, in the last several months, we had had more than our fair share of tragic events occurring with folks at the high school but not once had we been invited to seek details in the office. This felt very different.
I looked at my students. They were quiet, reading, waiting. I looked toward the door of my classroom, into the hallway. A colleague was walking by. I hesitantly stepped into the hallway and asked her if she’d seen the email and if so, did she happen to know who the student was?
She told me sadly. His name was Cameron. We called him Cam.
I swear, I had just been punched in the stomach. A hot flash washed over my face. My scalp tingled for a few seconds like it does when I’m scared, like an adrenaline rush.
“He was mine,” I managed to say. “What …. happened to him?”
“He died in a car accident last night. That’s all anyone really knows right now.”
He died. In a car accident. Those cold words tumbled over and over again in my head.
I must have looked like I was going to throw up or some other dreadful thing you shouldn’t do in the hallway of your school, because she then said, “You should go for a few minutes.”
I didn’t know where to go, so I went to my friend, the nurse’s, office. I wasn’t about to go to the main office. Despite the invitation. This was way too personal. I couldn’t find any words that made sense. My friend, the nurse, was kind and that’s all that mattered in that moment.
The rest of the day is a blur. I felt numb, shocked, and I was just … in disbelief.
What I most remember about this day is the memories. My mind was exploding with memories of this student, his class, that school year so long ago that I had packed away in my brain. I couldn’t get his adorable, freckled little face out of my mind, his smile, his puppy-dog personality.
I thought about his peers at the high school, his teachers there. What they were feeling. I could not even fathom their experience today, walking in and seeing his desk empty, his parking spot devoid of his truck, the texts that must be blowing up their phones, the tears.
I thought about his parents. How were they getting through this day?! What were they doing? How was his sister? Were they being taken care of? Were they breathing?! I had not thought about them in years and now so many memories came rushing at me … their names … their enthusiastic and constant participation in my classroom … their kindness … the love they had for their children … his sister doing some student teaching upstairs when she was a senior in high school … I had not met her before and introduced myself to her when I found out who she was because her brother was a special kid in my heart.
As I navigated my way through the day, I saw lots of Littles from behind that looked just like he had … short, blond, ears sticking out. My heart sank each time.
And this weird thought kept creeping in. All those years ago, whenever I talked to him, read to him, taught him, hugged him, held his hand, corrected his papers, watched him alongside his other wonderful classmates, did I ever know, even a teeny bit, that this day would happen? And I looked at my other students now with that thought … could you die? could you just be gone? Like I said, a weird thought. I know this. I wish, nearly three years later, that I was able to say I don’t think like that anymore. But that thought crosses my mind often.
By noon, the story had made the local news with details. Late at night. Black ice. Truck slid, vaulted over the guard rail, rolled down the embankment, coming to a stop on its tires, facing the wrong direction of the highway. Found dead at scene.
Sick. I felt sick.
When the end of the day finally arrived, and I was able to grab my keys off my table, hit the lights and walk out, I rounded the corner and walked smack into a parent who thought we had a meeting scheduled for that day. She had the date wrong; it was actually scheduled for the following Tuesday. She was so flustered about her mistake, and I was so … quiet. VERY unusual for me. She was embarrassed and apologetic, and on any other day, I would have been like, “No, you know what? You’re here, let’s sit down!”
But I just couldn’t. I couldn’t. I know she took my quiet demeanor personally, but I just wanted to leave, more than I had ever wanted to leave anywhere. I wanted to go home, I wanted to talk to Husband, I just needed to process what happened to this kind, sweet, adorable, wonderful little boy who was my student ten years ago in second grade, who died, alone, in a scary accident, last night, during his senior year of high school, driving home from one of his favorite places in the world: the ice hockey rink.
I called Husband the second I got in my car. I told him, “One of my students died. No, not one I have now. One from before, he’s a senior now … well, he was.” And I looked up and it was starting to snow lightly. “Can we NOT go to your mom’s tonight for dinner? The roads are going to get bad, I saw that on the news. I just want to stay home, I don’t want to go out.”
“Yeah, no problem,” Husband said. He called his mom. He told her. One of my students died. I was upset. She was very sorry to hear that happened.
I had to go pick up Girlfriend. At this point, I knew where the accident had occurred. It was not far from her school. I drove past it. The dents in the guardrail was undeniable. This happened. This was happening.
We saw the news that evening. WMUR. There was a segment. They showed his senior photo. “He grew into his ears,” I commented. The reporter, standing in front of the high school, said the entire town was “in disbelief and just devastated,” not only the high school but the middle and elementary schools.
My mother called. “I just saw the news, that student in your town, did you know him?Ohhhhhhh, he was yours … I was afraid of that.”
I should have called in sick the next day, and maybe even the day after that. As a highly sensitive person, this situation in my mind was bigger than me, it was taking everything I had to process it, and it was really messing with me. I was devastated. This was a kid who was so loved by everyone, so genuine in who he was and how he was, so full of life and energy and passion for the things he cared about. He made an effort. He was a good kid. He loved his family and his dogs. He respected and liked his teachers. And we all respected and liked him back. I just could not wrap my brain around this tragedy. Why him? I could not think of one good reason for his life to be cut so short.
It was an awful week. In rudimentary language, his death just made me feel really sad. I felt like a piece of my teaching life was gone because he was no longer part of that world in which I teach.
I thought a lot that day, that week, and the weeks following, about him when he was in my class. I remembered his friends, especially his two buddies who, with him, made a crazy trio. I thought about how hard he worked. I thought about the card he made for a little girl in our class who was moving. I thought about the school picture he gave me of himself, glued to a pretty piece of paper with his name and mine hand-written in pencil, hearts and stars drawn around his photo. I now have that photo framed and sitting on my desk in my classroom where I can see it. Occasionally, someone will ask, “Who’s that?” And my answer is the same every time: “A little boy I used to know.”
I had loads of digital pictures. I had so many that Husband got me a back-up drive to store them all. Being very organized, I had moved each school year into their own folders. His pictures were saved in “School year 03-04.” I opened the folder and the past came back to life on my computer screen. Our spider projects, the Miss Spider’s Tea Party where his dad was his guest, our Christmas celebration where his mom was his guest, our visit from children’s author Marty Kelly, whole-class photos from various days, random photos from a number of different days in class and out at recess, and on field trips. I took out the yearbook from that year and there was a photo of him and I together, on a local field trip to the salmon farm.
This child was dead.
People close to me did not understand my grief. Some were patient, others thought I was melodramatic, others still were surprised I would even remember a student from that long ago and be this heartbroken over it, considering I had not seen or talked to this student or his family since 2004. One individual suggested I was out line by talking to the family and offering my support. So, I really didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. People were sorry, they felt terrible, the entire community mourned, but there was really no one to tell my thoughts and feelings to, to ask, “Why is this hurting so much? When will it stop?”
Girlfriend slept in our bed with me that week. Just hearing her breathe comforted me. I didn’t want her to be out of my sight.
The next day, I met with a small group of teachers who talked with a grief counselor at the high school. I said that I felt guilty feeling so overwhelmed with sadness, I didn’t feel like I had the right to grieve this hard. The one thing I took away from the meeting was the counselor’s warning to all of us: “Death happens. We’re teachers. At some point it is going to happen to a student. We have to accept it. Feel the sorrow. Miss the student. But you can’t stay stuck in the sadness. You have to move away from it and get on with every day.”
Husband and I went to Cam’s funeral on Friday, December 13. It was more of a memorial service. The parking lot was jam-packed. We parked 1/4 of a mile down the street from the venue. It was freezing cold. It took us about 15 minutes to get there, surrounded by others who were going to the same place. I would have walked a day in this cold for this kid and his family. Once we arrived to the building where the service was being held, we stood in line for quite a while before even getting inside. The rooms were filled with family, friends, classmates, teachers, and coaches.
There was absolutely no place to sit. So we stood. I saw many former students and parents. Lot of people were crying. Others who were normally very outgoing were quiet, having sedated conversations with each other. In my hand I held an envelope with some pictures of Cam that I had, to give to his family from our time together in my classroom. His mother, beautiful as ever, looked broken. His older sister, holding it together, was the pillar of strength. His adoring father looked like he hadn’t slept in a year but was still managing to smile and talk.
His dad and sister arrived at the podium. His father spoke. His daughter supported him. Friends got up there and spoke. A coach spoke. Powerful words spoken, powerful memories spoken about. Powerful was this child. Members of the audience laughed and cried. Every single thing they talked about, I thought, YES, that’s Cam! That is the Cam I knew – and he never changed! This was the Cam we all knew, who we were all so lucky to know.
It was hard to leave at the end. Because I knew this was goodbye.
When we got home, Girlfriend was at my parents’ house for a sleep-over, so it was just us.
“Want dinner?” Husband asked.
“Nah … I don’t even know what I feel like.” I sighed.
I put on my pajamas. Husband made a cup of tea for me. I drank it. I went to bed. As I closed my eyes, the tears finally flowed, fast, hard, unrelenting.
I did not know at the time that this grief was going to last for as long as it did, or how it would eventually turn out. I did not know how many “Godwinks” were in store for me. I did not know how much this experience would change my life. Those are all stories for another time.
One thing I did know, that I still know, was this: Cam was a delightful force in all our lives. I loved being his teacher. I love that he was “mine.”
I may never be able to put into eloquent prose just how deeply his death affected me. But I can honestly say this was one of the most affecting experiences of my life. He is tucked away in my heart, and as horrific as this experience was, the reality is I am stronger, better, fiercer for having been a part of his short but meaningful life.
**written with express permission from the Ricard Family.