Death Is A Living Thing

There are plenty of classroom archetypes that you come to recognize more readily the longer you teach. There’s that kid who’s never really doing anything wrong but laughs at EVERYTHING and it drives everyone else crazy; there are girls who insult each other quietly and in code so their fights arrive with all the warning of an earthquake in the middle of the night; there’s the kid who’s secretly crazy-smart but doesn’t want anyone to know it; there’s that kid who’s loudly smart and NEEDS everyone to know it. But my least favorite of the bunch, I have to say, are the sensitive kids. Sensitive kids cry ALL THE TIME. About everything. They cry every day. They cry openly. When they are not crying, they are brooding. They sit on benches during recess and watch the other kids play and they frown. You ask a sensitive kid what’s wrong one time and she will say, distantly, “Nothing.” Ask a sensitive kid what’s wrong again, and you’ll get a dissertation.

I am so profoundly annoyed with sensitive kids because, without a shadow of a doubt, I was one. I wasn’t just an iteration of a sensitive kid, either; I was the quintessential sensitive kid at every school I ever went to. You know that part in Mean Girls where the blonde girl in the red sweater-shirt gets up during the school wide symposium and says, “I wish we could all get along like we used to in middle school. I wish I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy,” and she’s just sobbing her eyes out? Then it’s revealed that she doesn’t even go to that school, but she came to the symposium because she “just has a lot of feelings?” Yeah. I was that girl, but more.

As a child, I perpetually saw myself as the tragic victim of some great forgotten dramatic novel. When I lost my bid for class secretary in the fourth grade election, for example, I was inconsolable. Mrs. Williamson read the results, and I ran out of the classroom and into the bathroom to cry. I wrote in my diary, “Patrick Rivers doesn’t even really WANT to be secretary! He only ran for secretary because he thinks he has good handwriting! SECRETARY IS THE ONLY THING I HAVE EVER WANTED AND PATRICK RIVERS GETS EVERYTHING HE WANTS AND I DON’T HAVE ANY FRIENDS AND I AM ALONE AND THERE’S NO POINT TO MY LIFE.” Quite a lot of my elementary school diary entries end with, “and there’s no point to my life.”

This kind of behavior ignited a cycle: My constant state of misery made me impossible to be around, and so children my age openly avoided me. When children my age openly avoided me, I felt further victimized and righteous about my misery. I rapidly transformed into one of those kids who reads books in the music room during recess. I hated everyone and everyone hated me, and that seemed appropriate, because I was a God-damned unsung martyr.

When I look back at myself as a kid, my initial reaction is to feel embarrassed and disappointed. I was a stress eater and an insomniac; a loner and a crier. I missed all my opportunities to be cute or curious or naively charming, and started that whole insufferable troubled teen act when I was, like, six years old. But when I remember what drove all that sensitivity, and I begin to feel a little compassion for my former self.

I had a lot of fear. Mostly, I was afraid of what all people are sort of afraid of: I was afraid of death. 

When I was six, I was morosely obsessed with the diseases section of the children’s library. (I know "the diseases section of the children's library" doesn’t sound like it should be a thing, but it was a thing, and it IS a thing, and your local library almost certainly has a section just like that.) I was especially interested in the books about AIDS, which was all over the news in the early ‘90s: it was the most deadly and political epidemic to sweep the modern world, and I wasn’t alone in my fascination. My progressive Oregon school decided they wanted to start teaching kids about AIDS in the second grade, because it was so much a part of the lexicon at that time. At seven, all I heard was, “People are dying uncontrollably. You’ve been warned.”

Right after I learned about AIDS, I heard about the Holocaust. I caught bits and pieces of a documentary about Auschwitz my mom was watching on television, and I remember trying to fathom what I was hearing, but not really being able to compute the numbers. I took a bath that night and watched the water dripping from the bathtub and thought about what it would be like to be in a gas chamber. 

You can’t protect children from knowing about death. Death is the only thing in life that we can be sure of.

In New Orleans, where I live, the children I work with know death better than I ever did at their age. For my students, death is very much a living thing. If I was a good journalist, I would take this opportunity to include a statistic about the murder rate in New Orleans, or something like that. But I’m so tired of human loss being described numerically. Loss like this is innumerable.

Death is one thing, but unexpected, premature, violent death is another. And you can’t protect children from knowing about that, either. At least, you can’t protect children from knowing about it in the world we live in now. It is everywhere. 

So I’ve been wondering: what should we be striving to teach our children? Do we teach them Heaven and Hell, because there’s comfort in believing that our lives have this purpose beyond our time on earth? Do we teach them to avoid people we think might be dangerous, because they must protected at all costs? Do we teach them to fight back, or to run, or where to hide if things go badly, because these are dire times and they need to be prepared? What do we teach children when death is a living thing?

Here is what I wish I had been taught a lot sooner: Your fear is ok. Everyone feels fear. You aren’t going to be able to go around what you’re feeling now; you have to go THROUGH it. This will be uncomfortable. Your instinct is to avoid pain, but there’s no avoiding it. If you can, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone. You are never alone. You will never be alone. We are all bound up together in this life, just as we are bound up together in death. 

For my friends and family, there’s been more loss this year than ever before. It seems to be everywhere, all the time. In the wake of tremendous human loss, I am astounded at the human capacity to sit inside grief, and to live gently even as the sharpest tragedies prickle against the skin. In these moments, there is no fixing to be done, no solution, no cheering. There is only the going through it; and the feeling, in our bones, that we are somehow all connected in this.

When I was a kid, adults patently refused to talk to me about death. As an adult, I understand this: adults don’t want to talk to kids about death because adults don’t want to talk about death, period. Adults don’t want to talk about death, because adults don’t understand death. We all want to be distracted so we don’t have to think about it. We’d much rather move right into the SOLUTION of the thing. For example, if the cause of death is AIDS, then we will talk to children about how to avoid AIDS. If the cause of death is violence, we will talk to children about how to stay safe on the streets. We don’t want to move into what happens when death happens anyway; when we fail to avoid it. All there is is the sinking reality of loss.

You can’t protect children from loss. You can’t protect YOURSELF from loss. 

But you can tell the sensitive kids out there that loss isn’t something to be protected from. That you’re going to feel it, and it’s going to be ok. To take the time they need. To take the time you need.