in october, one of my students was murdered.
i have never been able to write about him, not really. i have barely been able to talk about him. people wanted to ask me how i was doing & tell me that they thought it was gang-related. i wanted to scream until i couldn’t hear anything, until the sound was a live & angry thing.
his brother didn’t come to school for months. for so long, there were these two empty spaces (the same seat in different classes, i didn’t realize until they were both gone). & then one day, after february break, he was back. quiet, smiley, himself. he came to my room after school that week to talk about books. we were laughing about something & i said, “i missed you.” & he smiled. when he left, half-an-hour later, he said, “thanks, ms.”
i want to tell him he can talk to me, that i’m here.
this week, in the middle of class, he got up & moved back to his old seat. for just a second, my breath caught, my lungs squeezed in the fist of my stopped heart. it looked so familiar, so strange.
during a team meeting, one of his teachers told us there had been an arrest made in the case of the murder. a students who had been on the roster last year but never showed up, discharged after a month. lived in the neighborhood. gang-related, “must have been.”
“that’s b—‘s brother.”
heart stopped, lungs squeezed.
the vibrant, bubbly, quirky senior with the skunk rock hair-do, the social butterfly of her class, one of our talent show stars. b— is like a flame dancing through the hallways; everyone is drawn to her, her enthusiasm catches & spreads. & she carries all of this.
i won’t make her me. i have been wary of this, of projecting my own childhood onto my students. but i can’t pretend i don’t know what it’s like to be bright & shiny & always, always on in the hopes that all that dazzle casts everything else into shadow. i can’t pretend i don’t know what it’s like to carry secrets all day: how tired it makes you, how numb, how lonely.
i want to tell her she can talk to me, that i’m here. today, as she left the talent show “after party,” i called out to her & came over with arms outstretched.
“aww!” she squealed, shimmying into my embrace.
“i’m so proud of you,” i said. “don’t be a stranger.”
& my heart beat slowly, cautiously, but did not stop.