Monday, April 02, 2007

The worst occupational hazard of all

When I got to school this morning I realized that I was actually excited to see my students. I missed them. It's a strange thing to go without seeing the people you see every single day for ten days. I was relieved to return to my routine. Occupational Hazard #2 of teaching is that it's hard not to get quite attached to teenagers. You realize they're struggling to make it through teenagehood. They're doing the best they can, but it's an unfair life and an unfair system.

At about 7:30 one of my students said "Hey, did you hear about what happened to Kyle ______ this weekend?" And I said I hadn' mind pulling Kyle up immediately. Kyle was one of the smartest kids I had ever taught. He lacked motivation, but not intelligence. He had a sense of humor and an absolutely charming smile. When I saw Kyle last, he was visiting the high school before Christmas break and he told me that college was really hard--he actually had to study. I gave him a hug and told him to stop back. I also remembered Kyle liked to party with his friends, and though I repeatedly warned him to be safe, I wondered if he had landed himself into some trouble. "What happened?" I asked. "Did he get arrested?"

"No," my student said. "They took him off life support. He died."

Occupational Hazard #1 of teaching is that sometimes you outlive your students. Kyle's intelligence, sense of humor, smart-alecky nature, and disarming Tom-Sawyer grin are gone. This loss has hit me very hard. Kyle was not an ordinary student to me. It's very hard to explain how some students can impact your life as a teacher. They have a quality you wish you had. They remind you of how you were at their age. They want to be when they grow up what you wanted to be when you grew up. They tell you that you mean something to them. Kyle possessed admirable qualities and I wanted to be able to say I knew him when. I knew that he would become something amazing: a nuclear engineer, a business tycoon, something where he would either make a lot of money or change the world, or both. At the very least, he would marry a girl and have adorable children that he would be a fantastic father to.

How Kyle died is important only so that his friends know that at age 19 you are not immortal. Accidents do happen, and they happen to good people all the time. People make mistakes that end up costing an extremely high price. Kyle did what a lot of us have done as we grow up, the difference being that he won't be able to laugh about it and talk about how dumb he was ten years from now.

Kyle's death has broken my heart. It's imperative to care about these kids, the teenagers I interact with on a daily basis. But, it leaves me, other teachers as well, open for tremendous heartache when something tragic happens.


jodi said...

Kelly, I'm so so so sorry.

Mary said...

Hi Kelly,

I found your blog while looking for news stories about Kyle (my neighbor). I didn't really know him and was glad to read your insights.

Here's a book that might interest you: End of Story by Peter Abrahams. It's a thriller about a young woman writer (MFA grad) who starts teaching at a prison. Extremely well written.


Matt said...


I was linked to this through Facebook after my mother told me about what had happened. As a former student of yours who graduated with Kyle's brother I'd like to say thank you. as tough as it must be to care about teenagers who often give nothing but angst and contempt in return it is teachers like you that so often make a difference.

Matt Scheffert

Kelly said...

Hi Mary, I will definitely check out that book! Thanks for the suggestion, and I'm glad I could share with you a little about who Kyle was.

Matt, thank you for saying thank you. I was really young when I taught you--not a whole lot older than you are now--and one really good thing that has come out of this tragedy is that I've been able to reconnect with many people from your class and others who I may never have seen again. I hope you're doing well--shoot me an email and let me know what you're doing these days!