I knew that students might scoff at "the speech," but I gave it anyway--just in case it would reach someone. I told them that they were important to me and wished them a Merry Christmas, and then I cautioned them to be safe over New Years--pretty much the same speech I also delivered right before prom and graduation. As a teacher, I always felt that I had less influence over my students during the holidays--either to reassure them when they might be having a holiday depression or to caution them right before New Year's Eve. I had to do my part to prevent one of "my kids" being in a horrible accident or making a careless decision that could not be taken back.
In the 21 years I was in the classroom, I never had to teach class where there was an empty chair due to the death of one of "my" own students, though I shepherded student editors through the writing of numerous tributes and news stories about deaths of their classmates and teachers. Of course, I also knew students who had serious health issues (some that eventually took the lives of those students), and I had former students who died after graduation.
I once feared for several hours that one of my own students had committed suicide. Assistant principal Robert King also believed that to be true; and we worried together, making frantic phone calls off and on all day and hearing conflicting reports before finally learning that the student in question had lived through the attempt. Not long before she graduated, that student came to me and asked what I would have thought if she had actually died in the suicide attempt. I remember very clearly telling her that I would be mad at her for the rest of my life, because she would have thrown away the love and attention I had given her for three years.
Though maybe not politically correct, that response came right from my heart and it shocked her. She objected, saying that she thought I would tell her how sad I would have been. I told her straight out that suicide is not romantic, and then I told her about Susie, whom my parents fostered for two years in her early teens. Susie wrote a suicide note and took an overdose not long after she turned 21. Standing beside her bed for days and then being there when the machines were turned off nearly killed my Mom. In the end, it seemed that Mom's love and anguish had been tragically wasted. "Don't you ever be the Susie of my life," I said.
During my years as a yearbook sales representative, I had numerous phone calls from advisers who needed help with the memorial pages in their books. One of the victims that I remember well was on the yearbook staff at her school. The teacher and the entire yearbook staff were devastated, as you can imagine, over the death of their assistant editor.
I remember so clearly seeing that student earlier in the year when she was sporting a horribly bruised forehead. She had banged her head against her car's windshield during a minor wreck. "Not wearing your seatbelt, I see," I told her, chiding her about how impossible it was to kiss the windshield while wearing a seatbelt. She broke her neck a few short weeks later in another accident, a wreck that her passengers walked away from, uninjured. It was a stupid accident caused by going too fast and goofing off with her friends just minutes after school let out one spring afternoon, and it was one she would have survived with a seatbelt.
One of my former students just sent me a note on Facebook to tell me that she is grateful that I have made it through some recent medical issues. She also said that she remembers "the speech" I gave every year before Christmas break. She thanked me for caring. I guess the speech did work. Wow. I'm so grateful that she went out of her way to tell me that, so many years later as her own children are in high school!
I might go crazy nowadays, if I were still teaching during these days of texting and driving... I'm so grateful that "my kids" made it to adulthood.