The Powerful Bond of Teachers & Students
I was checking my various email and social networking sites this past July during a break at the College Horizons program, when I stumbled upon some horrific news: four teenagers from my hometown of Santa Fe had been killed the night before in a drunk driving accident and another was in critical condition. I had personal connections to all these kids but two of them, Kate Klein and Alyssa Trouw, had been in my class only six weeks prior. Reading those names on the Santa Fe New Mexican website broke me in half, but one of the girls’ classmates and my student, Mary, was also at College Horizons, and I knew that she was unaware of what had happened. Gathering myself as best I could, I called Carmen, the program’s director, and relayed the horrific news. She immediately came over to meet me at the Whitman College student center, and we decided the best thing to do was to ask Mary to leave the session she was attending and tell her before she received a text or heard the same way I did.
I realize as I read this first paragraph over that I sound quite calm but I was far from it. I felt extremely restless and anxious. My hands shook; I paced when I wasn’t sitting, and my eyes had a hard time focusing on one object. Losing a student is never easy, but I was particularly close to both Kate and Alyssa in very different ways. Kate had been my Creative Writing student and apprentice teacher for our school’s community service component. We spent hours together every week before she ever entered my classroom junior year and her time in my American Literature course only deepened our relationship. She was a hungry and talented writer and natural teacher, often suggesting topics the class really wanted to learn. Sadly, she was also my eight-year-old son London’s piano teacher, and my thirteen-year-old daughter Poppy had been in the class that Kate and I visited on Thursday afternoons for our community service. Her death was a blow to my entire family.
Alyssa didn’t allow me to get very close, but we communicated through her writing and reading. She was a very smart student and her prose was sharp and infused with a mature intelligence that was rare for someone her age. In the beginning of the year, she didn’t seem to want to be at school and I had to give her some very low grades. An avid reader, it was impossible, however, for her to hide her intelligence during discussions of books like The Great Gatsby and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Seeing that kind of intellect go mostly unused made me a pebble in her shoe for three straight quarters. I tried to give her pep talks, sent her emails, and loaned her some contemporary fiction I thought she might enjoy. For some reason, she decided in the third quarter that she wanted to stay at our school with her friends, but moreover, she realized that being intelligent wasn’t such a scary thing, and it could help her gain that independence she sought through less desirable ways earlier in the year. She went from a D to an A in my class, never missed a day, and her results in other disciplines were similar. As a high school teacher, it’s rare to see that type of dramatic turnaround in such a short time and I, along with many others, was so excited to see what she’d do next.
We pulled Mary out of the meeting and led her to a quiet alcove decorated with comfortable chairs and potted plants. I don’t remember who broke the news but upon hearing about her lost peers, Mary dropped her head and uttered, “Oh, man,” in a way that’s hard to describe. Just the day before, Mary had seemed happier than I’d ever seen her because she’d been reunited with all her old friends from the Santa Fe Indian School. Part of the joy of students like Mary who attend mostly Anglo schools feel during College Horizons comes from being surrounded and supported by Native students and faculty. I knew this news would split her the way it was splitting me, only more so. I told her that I was glad that she was in Walla Walla with me, someone to share collective memories of Kate, Alyssa, and school life back in Santa Fe.
“If you ever need to talk,” I said, stifling tears. “Come find me. Anytime.”
“You know,” she said, looking up. Her face was still. “You can come talk to me, too.”