One of my high school WITS students was killed in an auto accident last weekend. She was in class for only about half of my visits, so try as I might, I can not bring forth a steady image of her face from my memory. As her English teacher gave me the sad news, I froze. In my hands was a folder of poetry that she’d written. It had some very good pieces in it, with my encouraging notes written here and there on her work, saying things like “Strong start–keep going!” and “Interesting… I want to know more!”
The teacher photocopied her work so that I could include some of it in the class’s anthology; she’ll give the originals to the girl’s family. As I thumbed through the girl’s work, I saw that she had written about how much she loved her mother and grandmother, and I was glad to know that they would be able to see it. As a coping exercise, the teacher had asked her students to write a short essay describing what they would do with their lives if they knew that they would be dying soon, and almost all of them wrote about how they’d hug their families, apologize to their families, tell their families that they loved them. Many don’t do any of this now, they explained, out of pride, guilt, or fear. Typical teenage reasons. Typical adult reasons, too, I suppose. I thought of this girl and how, whether she’d told her family her feelings out loud or not, at least now they’ll have them on paper. They’ll know that she wanted to keep her mother and grandmother with her forever if she could, and how fondly she remembered the smells of her grandmother cooking breakfast. They’ll know the beauty she saw in herself, in her own beautiful brown skin.
Several weeks ago in this class, we had discussed the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem “Childhood is the Kingdom where Nobody Dies.” Of course this conceit is wishful thinking; people die in children’s lives all the time, the students reminded me. From their writing, I know that this is true. Many in the class have lost one or more parents, siblings, cousins and friends, and seem to accept this as par for the course. As children, they were already sitting at Millay’s table with growing numbers of the silent dead. I am lucky to have had so few losses in my own life so far, they tell me, and I agree. This, they tell me, is what their lives are like: sometimes people flash out quickly, and you can’t spend too much time on grieving because if you did, it would never end. “It’s better to deal with death when you’re young,” one student explains, “so that it can’t hurt you as much later. So that you can be prepared.”
But her death hurts me deeply. I feel guilty that I can’t clearly remember this girl’s face, frustrated that she wasn’t there long enough to be cemented in my mind, tremendously sad that all I have of her is her carefully looped handwriting. But I am grateful to be able to pass this gift of her writing on to the family she loved, who will be able to see just how much she truly loved them.