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On a sunny May morning in 2010, some of my high school students found a cat. It had died after apparently being hit by a car. Her body was just off the busy street in front of our school, and since I was known as an animal person, the students came to me to process their distress. They were sad for the cat and the presumed owners of a pet who would suffer loss. They were upset to have started their day seeing the body of a long-haired gray cat who tragically misstepped.
We initially decided to leave the cat where we found it so that if her owner came looking, they could have needed closure. But when the cat was still there at the end of the day, a small group of students found a shovel and decided to do a proper burial. I helped. We weren’t teacher and student at that moment. I was taking their lead as they poured sadness, grace, and empathy into this cat, into their community.
A group of five of my high school students, both young men and women from various peer groups worked together. They gathered flowers, dug a hole, said kind words, and marked the grave with painted rocks. The tone was somber and loving toward an animal none of us knew. We all observed a silent moment after burial. Then we ended the day and left, as usual."On the surface, this is a difficult memory of death and coping, but it is also a bittersweet story of people coming together to mourn, honor, and share. The thought of this time gives me hope." Click To Tweet
Why I hold this memory close
I write about this now, 12 years later, as I make meaning of life during tough times, within education and in the broader world. As more names and faces come in and out of my life each year, the details of my earlier years of teaching fade around the edges. But, this memory remains vivid. This story remains close to my heart over a decade later. The compassion my students displayed still warms my heart as it feels the creeping frostbite of burnout.
As we close another school year, amid societal division, world conflict, illness, and great uncertainty, I hold this moment close. When I do, I feel that tenderness exemplified in young people caring for an animal who passed. When most of us see a carcass we wonder who will clean up the mess. But they didn’t close their hearts or turn away. What happened near our school was their responsibility, according to them.
Which experiences do you hold close?
I write this, at least in part, to ask other teachers and educators to recall the sweeter times in their careers to sustain them through the tougher times. I write this, because we often see a less positive side to teens. This story reminds myself and others that teens feel deeply, take responsibility, and act compassionately. On the surface, this is a difficult memory of death and coping, but it is also a bittersweet story of people coming together to mourn, honor, and share. The thought of this time gives me hope.
I also write this to remind myself and others of our shared humanity, the kind that animals seem to inspire in us. This type of experience cannot happen during online instruction (at least not in the same way). Our role as educators is as relevant in our highly tech-reliant society as it was 12 years ago and decades before that. As my colleague says about great teachers in Scratching the Wall of a Condemned Cell: Teaching Humanity, “their humanity was their greatest teaching tool.” In this case, the students were teaching me; I just left space for it to unfold.
Finally, I share this memory to remind us to teach compassion at every opportunity. Our students may be grieving the deaths of loved ones due to Covid and many other things. They may witness violence or its aftermath. How we respond can teach them that their own feelings matter and deserve attention and processing. Before, during, and after a pandemic–in better times and tough times–compassion is perhaps our strongest teaching tool.
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