I started teaching in the fall of 1997. This is my 19th year in the field of education, yet I still, every year, feel that adrenaline-induced twisting of my brain and insides as I gear up for the start of school. Here come hundreds of more people for me to love, figure out, learn from, and do my best to help in the myriad ways that they need it. It's terrifying and wonderful.
I get asked frequently if I wish I had children, or why I don't have children. There are many reasons I don't have children, some that are too sensitive to discuss here, but I don't miss having them. I know I have been able to participate in teenage lives in ways I never would have had I children at home to love, too.
I've been thinking about this so much lately, and this has caused me to spend a good amount of time remembering my former student T. T was a brilliant rebel from a problematic home, and he frustrated me and made me laugh to tears. A goofy-looking dude, he was an incorrigible flirt who succeeded in his amorous efforts with his female classmates. He was a deep-hearted friend to those he loved, drawing those who were suffering from sick moms or absent dads into his posse. He'd come in to my classroom at odd times to talk about whatever, mostly to crack jokes, and during class, he'd draw a mustache on the inside of his index finger and hold it up over his lip to distract me to laughter. In my AP English Language and Composition class, which he had the last period of the day, he'd come in each day and pick up a New Yorker from my pile in the back of the classroom. He'd read the New Yorker during class, and I'd only occasionally be able to get his head out of the magazine. Most of the time I didn't mind because I knew he was learning in his own way, and a lot of what I could teach him, he already knew instinctively. He was a master of language. But, in the week before the AP exam, my patience had run thin. I really wanted to make sure he had a few test strategies down. I asked him repeatedly to put the magazine away. The third time, he protested: "But Ms. Wenger, this article is so interesting. It's about whether or not we should keep the penny. The penny, Ms. Wenger!"
I put on my teacher face and lowered my voice to the angry, deep tone I only use when I'm serious. "Put it away."
He did. He focused on me through class but left at the bell without saying goodbye. The next day he was back with all of his ebullient enthusiasm for life and humor. A few days later, as soon as he finished the AP exam, he came straight to my classroom and broke all sorts of College Board rules by talking about the test before 48 hours were up.
"I killed it, Ms. W," he said. "I know I did really well. Ms. Wenger, the synthesis question, it was about whether or not we should keep the penny. THE PENNY, Ms. Wenger!" He did do well. He earned a 5, the highest score possible.
I loved this kid.
He went on to college, a good school. He wrote me notes occasionally, and he even asked me for seeds for his vegetable garden that he and his housemates were growing in the house they shared in the last couple years of college. I sent him a good collection, and he sent me updates on how they were doing. He was growing other plants too, ones that he used recreationally. He graduated from college three years ago.
Sometime in college, he hurt his shoulder. His doctor prescribed pain meds, hard ones.
You may know where this is going, but it doesn't make it less heartbreaking.
When it became easier and cheaper for him to abuse heroin rather than the pain meds, he made the switch. One day two years ago, it was too much heroin or not good heroin or something went wrong, and he died.
I hate the picture still up on his Facebook page. He has a half-smile, but he looks terrified. He's skinny, and to me, he clearly looks strung out. That's not him. That's not the brilliant, strangely confident boy who wore ridiculous sweaters and could make the most mundane task fun.
For weeks after he died, I couldn't walk on campus in the morning without breaking into tears. Some days, I could make it to my classroom before breaking down, but safe in the early morning quiet of my classroom, I would cry for how much beauty in the world was lost in losing T. Then, I would dry off my face, clean up my mascara, make sure I had what I needed ready for classes, and smile at the gorgeous creatures deserving of all my attention and efforts walking into my room for the first period of the day.
This spring, a girl who when in high school loved T, and who I think T loved back, a girl who is just as brilliant and interesting and interested in the world as T, but who has made it this far in the world successfully and has learned from the heartbreaks that have come her way, called me. We talked for over an hour. Our conversation rambled over many territories, but of course, we had to talk about him. We both cried. When we finished mourning together, we moved on. She's doing wonderful things, and she's challenging herself to not settle, but to be better, a better thinker, a better person. She's working on making a career writing. Writing, Ms. Wenger!
Also this spring, a work colleague and I drove together to an event. She commented on how much she hurt from some of the pain of our students. Yes, I told her, I know. Look at how many people we get to love in our job. We are the luckiest people.
School starts this week.