I was 23 and fresh outta college. I loved my job…well. most of the time. I loved greeting my students in the morning, writing the daily journal prompt on the board. I loved taking my students on field trips to local point of interest- which in this alternative school there were plenty. I loved teaching my self-designed units on History of the Rhode Island slavery and Ethnic American Literature….plus, I was always a sucker for school supplies.
However, I strongly disliked the backdoor politics and bureaucracy that often comes with the package… and having to work through the legacy of segregated schooling on a daily bases. This was a small high school, unique in its model. Learning was project and internship based, and I was to stay with my 15 students all four years of high school, but it hadn’t had all its kinks worked out. A state charter school meant I worked with students from more privileged parts of the state that were reading at an advanced level alongside students from the inner city that had barely mastered elementary reading skills. It was challenging to say the least, but I loved it and felt grateful that I worked for a school that included individual goal setting in its model-which translated to lots of one on one time with each kid. Academics aside, my new position presented me with the responsibility of my students’ social engagement as well.
In other words, this wasn’t a job, it was a life-style choice. I single-handedly went from college graduate to adopted parent/mentor/big sister to 15 fourteen year olds…so whether it was a family issue, breakup, friend drama, or academic challenge, I had to be there…with bells on. and again, I loved it. At the time, I strongly felt that this approach to educating young people was the closest thing around to what I valued most; seeing the big picture, seeing each student as a whole…sure, I was exhausted…and my big plan of “teaching will allow time for writing” was completely out the window…and I wasn’t the only one. The other teachers all had trips, grad school plans, family plans–that was to start the moment those 4 years were done and the students graduated…like freezing our lives to move along the lives of others. I always looked up to the folks in my position that appeared as though they were balancing their life…but they were few and far between. Needless to say most of us looked forward to Christmas break.
The holiday came and went and my first day back I felt something was off. One of my students, Ryan was absent. Ryan was never absent. Ryan was respectful, polite, and quietly studious; a product of inner city school culture where bright students are discouraged from showcasing their academic talent. He wrote with a wisdom and clarity that surpassed even my high expectations. He was going places, possibility leaked from his pores. I called his home and no one answered, I assumed he was just sleeping in, we all have our off days after all… but I was wrong.
Oprah had a show about gut instincts once…and although I was never a fervent Oprah follower, I couldn’t help but to catch some sound bites from my mother’s daily Oprah-intake. I remember she interviewed a woman who claimed her body could tell something was wrong with her living room well before she got assaulted by someone who broke in. She just felt it in her gut.
I can honestly say my gut told me something was wrong that morning when he didn’t come to class. My body already knew. That is why when the school councilor pulled me out of staff meeting that afternoon to inform me that one of my students had been killed, I already knew it was Ryan: Fourteen year old, future music producer, brilliant writer, loved by all-Ryan.
What was initially thought of as a homicide turned out to be carbon monoxide poisoning. Ryan and his family all perished over winter break shortly after the faulty installation of a new water broiler. How cruel and unfair I thought to myself…
The following weeks proved to be some of the most challenging of my life. The forensics team needed time to complete their investigation and it was taking longer that expected. Having barely processed the information myself, I was given the responsibility of telling my students before they heard it on the news that night. Due to the school’s community-minded nature, I was to prepare press statements and take part in an endless barrage of press conferences, school assemblies, counseling sessions, memorial plans… It became my habit to sob for brief moments on my ride to work for that entire month. I began to wonder when exactly will I be able to fully grieve?
The funeral felt like a blessing to me. It was sunny and cold morning some time in late January and I was already cried out from the wake. The cemetery sits atop a hill in a park that is home to old growth oaks that overlooks a peaceful pond. I remember how good the sun felt on my face that day. I felt like a release to finally be able to say goodbye to Ryan in the physical form since I believe no one is ever really “gone”, just transitioned to another state.
This year marks the fourth anniversary of Ryan’s passing, and the fourth year that my former students and I meet at his grave on New Years Day.
We met in the afternoon, under a bright winter sky, the sun already lowering into the pond below. After a few minutes of chatting about our life changes; new college experiences, family updates, upcoming challenges…we join hands and take turns saying a prayer. We share memories and feelings about our loss and decorate his grave with flowers in his favorite color red…always the moment passes too quickly and off to our lives we must return–but, not before a proper reunion at everyone’s favorite pizza shop to ring in the New Year together.
One of my former students and close friend of Ryan, now a grown man- pointed out that he came against his mother’s pleadings. Its bad luck to visit the dead the first day of the New Year she said, why dwell in grief? We know we don’t visit to grieve, we visit to remember Ryan and all our good times with him, we visit to celebrate his life, those moments his physical presence impacted ours in brief, but important ways… and we do it on New Years because that is when Ryan passed- the last anyone heard from him was a little before midnight when he typed to a friend on myspace that he wasnt feeling well and was heading to bed. His last thoughts were wishing her a Happy New Year. That’s how we have come to remember him each year…. so instead of “we miss you Ryan”, its more like
“Happy New Year Ryan”