Juan Carlos and Yosef have gotten now to the part in The Land I was most concerned about them reading–Paul Edward’s best friend, Mitchell, gets killed. Technically by a man shooting him while he’s felling a tree, but for my guys, the death of a sympathetic character is enough of a shock that I leave the homicide out of it. Juan Carlos spends several minutes angry at trees.
The process of walking them through this is hard enough to live through once that I don’t, honestly, feel like recounting it. But what gets me–what I want to share–is the discussion question, afterwards. Every chapter I adapt, I put in a Connection–a chance for my students to reflect on the story in light of their own lives. Usually, it’s pretty light, pretty simple. “Paul Edward and Caroline relax together at the end of a hard day. What do you like to do to relax with your family?” “Rachel didn’t trust Paul Edward at first, but she gets to know him better and she changes her mind. Have you ever changed your mind about someone?”
Today’s Connection is a little bit deeper, and the topic it raises applies to everyone in the room. As Yosef and Juan Carlos wrestle with the sadness of Mitchell’s death, I am myself still reeling from something that doesn’t make its own entry in Teacher Beth’s Teacher Log. It is something that I think about, right now, as little as possible, which still means I think of it almost all of the time. One of my closest friends committed suicide while we were on Chapter 8–as I summarize Mitchell’s funeral for my fifth graders, the reality is, I am planning my friend’s.
Across the table from me sits Uncle L., the paraprofessional who I’ve been blessed to work with for many of my past twelve years in education. He’s retired now, but he still likes to come in, every now and again: though he doesn’t need the money, he stays on as a sub. There were a few weeks when he couldn’t come at all, and now, he can come again. Because his wife’s cancer is terminal, and the hospice folks are there now.
There isn’t much either of us can do with our grief. I go to work every day and I don’t talk about my friend–my students and their peers provide the best kind of distraction, because with them, I am immediately present and immediately of use. Uncle L. tells only me about his wife’s diagnosis: he’s never been much for social chit-chat, and his situation is beyond something platitudes can help. “It’s good to be with the kids”, he says, and I know what he means. Uncle L. and I sit in the child-sized chairs, and our grief sits beside us, but at school, we don’t watch it. Until the Connection, when we look at my slide.
Juan Carlos and Yosef are at a loss, unable to imagine a grief as great as Paul’s. It’s time, I realize, for the grown-ups to try.
Uncle L. goes first. “When I’m sad, I find something I can do that will make me feel happier.” We talk for a few moments about what that might look like, at the level that Yosef and Juan Carlos understand it. If a game you like is broken, you can find another game. If you’re missing your grandma who visited last week, it might be nice to write her a letter, and then do something else. Uncle L. and I exchange glances over the slide: I try to silently tell him in that glance that I fully understand why being away from his wife right now is the most loving thing he can do for the both of them. “It’s good to be with the kids.”
My turn. “When I’m as sad as Paul is here, I spend time with people who care about me. Or, I go for a walk, and I try to pay attention to the beautiful things around me. That’s what helps me, when I’m as sad as Paul.” As I say this, I think of walking around the lake by my dead friend’s home, and I think of the kindness my closest friends have shown to me. Inasmuch as I am able to set my sadness aside when I come to Greene Elementary, it is because others help me carry it when I’m not here at work.
Juan Carlos shares that sometimes, when he’s sad, he goes to his room and cries. “Crying helps,” I tell him, and Uncle L. agrees. “Have you tried telling your grown-ups that you’re sad? That helps, too.” Yosef says he tells his mom, and he usually gets a hug. Juan Carlos agrees that it sounds like a good idea.
We can’t spend much longer on The Land today. There would never be enough time to process it all.