Lee-Ann Meredith is the author of Angels in My Classroom: How Second Graders Saved My Life
At the end of my first semester as a teacher, my 44 year old husband was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. As a family, we began the long journey of radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy. There were decidedly the everyday moments that most families have: laughter at the dinner table, teenage drama, family trips and parties. These were interspersed with repetitions of treatments. It felt rather like “lather, rinse, repeat” until Mark’s death three years later.
My world shattered. I had two teenagers. One was a brilliant but, oh, so angry boy and the other was stunned that her optimism had let her down and her darling and adoring dad was gone. Those were dark days as we struggled to reshape our family as we tried to fill the void his absence left with us. The only part of my world that remained whole was in my classroom. I had the great fortune of getting a job at the urban school where my children had attended, where nearly everyone knew us as a family unit. My co-workers were my bedrock and my classroom was where I was able to start rebuilding my life.
My grief made me keenly aware of my students who were also grieving. Many non-educators think very little of what is going on in a child’s world. That is unless it is their own child. Teachers know our students are people with real lives though we handle it in different ways.
My own children’s’ school certainly proved that to me. My son was at a premier high school where only one teacher offered her condolences to him. He was written up for cutting class and given a detention when he got up and walked out of a windowless classroom one day the week after his dad died. Rules were followed and there were no exceptions made for the lose of a parent.
My daughter attended a girls’ Catholic high school (her choice). Everyone of her teachers and the entire administration came to either the wake or the funeral. The two directors of the play she was in brought the entire cast to the wake instead of rehearsal that night. They were almost too kind, sometimes letting her take advantage of the flexibility they gave her.
It made me acutely aware of how compassion for others’ emotions is crucial in our day-to-day lives. It turned me into the best teacher I knew how to be so I could be the bedrock for the young people in my world. I was hardly perfect but being a second grade teacher fulfilled me. My relationship with each of my students, the laughter they gave me, and the battles I fought with them or on their behalf gave my life a purpose.
I am hardly the only teacher who has lived through the illness or lose of a loved one. In fact, it happens all the time. Teachers are human but we are also tough. Like me, teachers write lesson plans in spare moments, even next to a hospital bed. I showed up and kept it moving forward for my students. If I am honest, it was also for me.
Ten years after my husband’s death, I realized my classroom had become my safe haven – the place of expected, controlled chaos. It was time to turn myself away from the hard work of teaching and do my final grieving and reflections. It was time to leave my hidey hole and tell my story.
My healing had come in large part from my student’s love for me. They took me outside of my woe and gave me a genuine reason to laugh and love again. It also came from my desire to be the best teacher I could for them. I had lost the center of my personal life so I re-centered myself on my classroom. It was time to take my center back.
Always a storyteller, I had heard for years I should write my stories down. Writing the hilarious or poignant stories of my second graders was the easy part. The stories I had shared with very few were the stories of my personal journey. These were, in essence, my secret stories. Sharing them has been both scary and wildly healing.
Two years later, I am holding the proof to my book. Not just my life story or the story of being a second grade teacher but both. It is the story of a teacher, a middle-aged Midwestern woman, who had found her way back to herself with the help of seven year olds. I hope it provides those of us who have gotten lost along the way some hope. It is, after all, ultimately a love story.
To buy a copy of my book, click here. Use the code 4J3983BU for a $5 off coupon.