“I’ve been actually really very pleased to see how much awareness was raised around bullying, and how deeply it affects everyone. You know, you don’t have to be the loser kid in high school to be bullied. Bullying and being picked on comes in so many different forms.”
I was in sixth grade during the 1985-86 school year, and was happy to see that my teacher was a woman who had graduated with my aunt. I knew little about her, but knew that she was an amazingly intelligent woman who lived on the quiet side of life. I had heard in conversation that she had recently lost her parents, so made it a point to plan on being extra nice to her and see if I could help after class in any way.
After telling my two best friends about what she was dealing with, we made a pact to stay after school to help her do the menial tasks that teachers must do to prepare for the next day. Never did we think how much our plans would have to be amped up.
She spoke in a quiet voice, and you could tell immediately that all she wanted was for things to run smoothly. She was deeply wounded and when the more unruly students sensed blood in the water, they made it a point to be downright revolting to her. It hurt so, to see her not even try to reign in the barrage of taunts or dodge the disgusting spitballs that were hurled her way, and often pelted her–even some landing in her hair. If it could be thrown, slammed or disrupted, it was game on.
She couldn’t lose control of a classroom that she never had a grip on, and she knew it. Day after day, month after month she tried her best to impart knowledge into prepubescent brains that were having none of it. They reveled in her weakness, and her tears were like gasoline to an already wild fire of entitlement and ignorance.
My friends and I did what we could for her. We started out by asking if she needed help, but then just took it upon ourselves to begin tidying without asking. As she sat in silence, we worked in silence, cleaning up the small wads of saliva-soaked notebook paper and washing the chalkboards. We cleaned the erasers and straightened the desks, and made the room look as untouched as it did for the first day of school, every evening.
Of course there were a couple of days when she politely said that we didn’t have to stay, which we knew meant that she needed to be alone with her thoughts. We reluctantly obliged her, but always felt torn walking out of that door to begin our long walk home. She would be the star in our conversations, as we wondered aloud how we could possibly do more for her. There wasn’t much we could do, except what we were doing but we always promised between ourselves that we would do our best and be cheerful when we were around her. In our minds, we foolishly thought that by being sunshine around her, that we could heal her heart. Her pain, unbeknownst to us, was untouchable and beyond what any of us could imagine.
We carried on our duties and let her know that our parents were supportive of what we had chosen to do. She tended to ask us if our parents were wondering where we were, so we felt that this was one less thing she would have to worry about.
The school year was slowly coming to an end, and we hoped that there would be others in the next grade who would carry on what we had started.
I remember telling her before I walked out to begin my days in the sun, to have a good summer and thanked her for being a great teacher. The next grade, however, would not get to know her, and her sweet spirit. And never did I think that it would be the last time I would see her.
We had just started the first week of seventh grade, when we got the news.
Our teacher was dead.
Not being able to face her unimaginable pain and another brutal school year, she climbed into her car, started the engine in the solitude of her garage, and slipped away.
She wasn’t found for about three days.
To say that the news was devastating would be an understatement. We were saddened to realize that our kindness could not save her, and angry at the bullying she endured. It was the first time that suicide was made real and not just some random topic of an after-school special.
It would go on to cement my stance on bullying for the rest of my life.
We decided to walk up to the funeral home to pay our respects to our teacher. And as we walked up to her once life-filled body, we could see the post-mortem results of her last days before she was found. The funeral home did as good of a job as they could, but since we had spent so much time with her, recognized what was her, and what was what was left of her.
Soon we noticed a soft-spoken lady walk up beside us to thank us for coming, because at this point, she said that we were the only children who had come to honor our teacher’s memory. She was her aunt, and I remember giving her a hug and saying what words I could about how much I liked her as a teacher. And to our surprise, the kindness that we had given to our teacher was verbalized back to us.
Her aunt thanked us for trying our best, and for being kind to her when others just wanted to be cruel. She told us how much our teacher had been grieving the loss of her parents, since she was an only child, and how much the bullying was affecting her.
We said how we wished we could’ve done more, but her aunt told us that it just wasn’t possible and that we had done more than anyone had expected of such young children. We each thanked her for her words, she thanked us again for coming, and we left to walk home–sending her love, mostly in silence and with tear-stained faces.
We were forever changed from this pebble thrown into our pond, and the ripples still travel–thirty years later.
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