Grief Is Its Own Force

And it is the mistress of me.

We returned home from Houston, exhausted physically and emotionally. Then ordinary life engulfed us again: grocery shopping, cleaning, paying bills. We comforted ourselves by escaping into our routines and into our computers and books. I returned to my job on Monday. It was surreal. I walked into the teachers’ lounge after a two-week absence, and a school staff member immediately said, “Hi, I need a favor from you…” and proceeded to tell me what she wanted. No inquiry as to how I am (even the standard superficial greeting), nor any welcome for my return. Just a need announced, or rather, demanded.

My students were unruly. They’ve always been a handful, being in the 4th and 5th grade, with a few of them being a good two years older than their grade-level peers. With the gorgeous sunny weather, they are restless after school. They don’t want to be in our program, sitting inside doing homework and taking tests. Monday and Tuesday were a challenge, but one of my “instigators” was absent. Upon this student’s return today, the group “kicked it up a notch.” I tried my strict approach, which has worked in the past, but another of my instigators, who has increasingly given me back-talk and attitude, pushed back. He was insolent. I pulled him outside to talk. He was angry and tearful, saying I always act like I’m the boss, telling them what to do. I clarified that my role is to be in charge of the program, that I am “the boss.” He said I’m too strict. I also pointed out all the praise and prizes I give him (and others) and asked if I don’t get credit for that. He grudgingly admitted this. But he wasn’t happy.

So I went into the room and said that I understood some people were unhappy about the program and me, and I was willing to hear them and discuss. My returning student said I was too strict. Another student said he thinks I’m cool. Another student said he’d prefer my company’s competitor. Then the student who thought I was cool turned to talk with another while I was trying to speak, and the boy whom I’d pulled aside was doing his homework, and several other students were asking to get a drink, a pencil, or simply ignoring me, and something slipped inside. I was talking to the air. What was I thinking? That I could have a rational talk with nine-to-twelve-year-olds about their gripes and work out solutions? That they have the capacity to reason and be reasonable?

I didn’t have the energy to fight, and the tough approach clearly was losing its efficacy. So I very quietly said, “Okay, forget it.” They looked at me. “Do whatever you want. You will anyway. No touching others’ property, no physical contact. Otherwise, you’re on your own.” They said, “What? What should we do?” The boy who thinks I’m cool said, “I like the rules!” I walked to a table and pulled out my laptop and various papers needing attention. I was aware and supervised indirectly, but I wouldn’t instruct them today. Nor would I check their homework or help them. They asked to go to the bathroom, and I said, “Find a buddy and go.” Usually I harp that they need to go before program, because I know they just want to get out of the room and this is an excuse. I felt desolation yawning within.

For the two hours, they yapped and played and made a bare attempt to do homework. They didn’t accomplish much, but they didn’t bring down the roof, either. By the end of program I asked them, “How was it today? Is it better? Should we continue this way? I know you don’t want to be here, but you have to be here. Should I stop caring, making an effort?” They looked somber, except for the student whom I’d pulled aside. He looked intently at me (I felt like I might begin crying) and then said, “Teacher, can we go?” I nodded curtly, and they left — without their daily rewards for good behavior and homework completion.

And then grief washed over me, and I couldn’t stop crying. I was ambushed by thoughts of my father-in-law: regrets of missed opportunities to know him better, awareness of the irrevocability of death, memories of his last days and hours. I watched him take his last breath. It is so jarring to realize that death means that someone is gone, at least from the type of contact that humans usually enjoy. I don’t believe that we can communicate with the dead. This person, whom I loved, is not around to talk with, will not be around to give advice or share dark chocolate, will be an invisible entity to my children. They will know of their grandfather, but they will never know him. This reality, this truth, when pressed to fit into the shape of ordinary life, well, it’s too big to fit. I’m fragile; I broke. How am I supposed to go on caring about whether students do their homework knowing so tangibly how ephemeral it all is? This is a rhetorical question. I don’t want advice. This is just how I am experiencing my life, my grief, right now.

And yes, I do talk to him. I don’t believe he exists, that he hears me. But hearing my own voice attempting to connect makes me feel a bit less gutted (just a bit). I guess you could call that comfort.

Side note: I have been married one month as of today. It hasn’t been an entirely joyous time. Poignance infiltrates everything.

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