Monday, May 15, 2017

Sad News at the Little College in the Orange Groves

Sad news today at the little college in the orange groves: the campus learned of the death of a student who distinguished herself as a leader, scholar and friend.

Rebel Girl waited outside the classroom of a colleague to tell her. The colleague, still fairly junior, observed that this was the first time she had "lost" a student.

Lots of tears today in the new Liberal Arts building from students, staff and instructors.

When Rebel Girl got home,  she looked up this old essay of hers, written ten years ago. For what's it worth, here it is. It recalls her own first "lost" student, and the ones that followed.  She observes that they don't teach you about this in grad school. She is grateful today to have such colleagues as the ones she shed tears with, the ones who sat with their students and listened to their fresh grief.

Pedagogy of the Deceased

I did not go to my student's funeral today despite rising at 4:30 a.m. intending to. It was dark then, December dark and deeply cold in the Southern California foothills where I live, and I built a fire in the fireplace and read yesterday's newspaper and waited for today's to arrive. When it did, I read it too, both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times and by that time – just after six – the sun started to come up over the hills and I made yet a third cup of coffee. A local man who had gone for a walk in the foothills was still missing and the search would continue at sunrise. I had seen the helicopters the day before. The local NPR station predicted a day of sunshine followed by clouds and the first real rain of the season later tonight. I had papers to grade. I hoped the missing man would be found before the rain came.

About this time, at the semester's end, I tell my community college students that I always think of them as mine even when they go on to other teachers and transfer to the university, even if they arrived at my class after studying closely with others in our department, even if we didn't especially get along. I warn them: "I will see you walking across campus and I'll point you out to whomever I am with and you maybe even hear me say, 'That's one of mine.'" Their faces stiffen.

"I mean well," I explain, "even if it makes you cringe a bit, even if it sounds, well, too proprietary. I am proud of you. You have rights to me. Stay in touch. Let me know how it goes, and where you go. I write terrific letters of recommendation. If I can be of help, you know where to find me." Yes, at the end of it all, no matter what they have put me through and no matter what they have put up with from me, I stand at the podium and offer those words.

And I mean them, more or less. More for some students, less for others. I admit, I am not entirely honest here. No, some students I do not think of as "mine." These are the students who, despite my efforts to reach and teach, sometimes fail, or just scrape by, or maybe even excel, but somehow after our 16 weeks together, we haven't made a connection. Perhaps I recite those words, covering the whole class with a kind of appreciative blanket, because I hope that even as those students move on, we might still connect somehow. Instruction doesn't end in the classroom. Neither does a relationship between student and teacher. I believe that.

When I went into teaching nobody warned me that my students would die. Maybe they didn't think the obvious was worth mentioning. My UC Irvine professors and colleagues introduced me to modes of instructional delivery; they taught us student retention strategies; they reviewed methods of measuring student success and accurate evaluations of student work, these days ominously characterized as "student learning outcomes;" they discussed how to locate authority in the classroom and how to embrace means of de-centering the authoritarian classroom; they droned on about writing as process and not product; they invoked a triumvirate of composition deities and their holy texts: Peter Elbow of Writing without Teachers, Mina Shaunessey of Errors and Expectations and Paulo Freire of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

So I was shocked when, during my first year of full-time teaching, a student of mine died, killed in an auto accident on the way home from campus. She was a passenger in a car driven by another student who made an ill-advised left turn against traffic whose speed he did not accurately judge. Avenues and streets here in central Orange County, in Irvine especially, are broad and made for speed. I shouldn't have been surprised, of course, but I was. She was there one day and then, the next, she wasn't. There were a couple days following where tearful young students hoped for the best against the shaking older heads of doctors and adults. Finally, we gathered at a church. Some went on to stand graveside at the cemetery in Newport Beach with views of the ocean. I purchased a bouquet of purple irises that the florist promised would open slowly and last long. In my composition class, the student had written an essay about her birth, a home birth in a cabin in a wilderness that I remember as in Vermont, in a cabin she said was built by her parents.

Even now, well over a decade later, I often see her mother, who looks so much like her daughter, the pale skin and open face, the long dark hair. Since her daughter's death, the family has endowed a scholarship in the young woman's memory and the mother has become a student and an active volunteer on our college campus, supporting the arts as had her daughter. We have spoken on occasion through the years, at one event or another. Last week, she attended the campus holiday party in the sun-drenched quad, and, when the student trio began to play a danceable Christmas carol, a standard with a swing, the mother turned to her nearby female friend, and they began to dance, holding each other lightly. I snapped a picture of the pair, all in white, dancing in California December sun, twirling on the cement, laughing.

I remembered her daughter and I recalled the next student of mine to die, a young local man, distraught about a break-up. Late at night, he had driven south to the next county to reason with his ex-girlfriend, only to be rebuffed. She had gone on, as many of our students do, to a big U.C. and fallen for someone else. Upset, in unfamiliar territory, my student entered the freeway via an off-ramp. A big rig struck him. A colleague and I attended the memorial service, a grim affair where the young people present were encouraged to approach the closed coffin and the preacher, and give their lives to the Lord. A few days later, we held an on-campus memorial. His teachers and his friends spoke. I read a short poem by Thomas McGrath:

How could I have come so far?
(And always on such dark trails!)
I must have traveled by the light
Shining from the faces of all those I have loved.

The poem didn't feel right; years later, it still doesn't, but what would?

Then there was the sportswriter on the now defunct campus newspaper. An international student from Colombia. He worked hard, long hours in a program that never got the support it deserved. The night he was killed he'd been the lone staffer trying to put the paper to bed before night fell. I stopped by the newsroom on my way to class and tried to help but eventually I left him there, still at the mercy of a deadline. I had a class to teach. He had a deadline. He wasn't technically "my" student and yet he was. He rode a ten-speed to campus. That night, in the darkness that falls so early after Daylight Savings Time arrives, he was hit by a car whose driver was making a right turn, and killed immediately. His mother couldn't get a visa to come to the states for his funeral. On a cold morning, his aunt carried his ashes and we followed, students and teachers, boarding a boat in Newport Beach that would take us out a few miles in the Pacific. I still remember how the aunt, after she approached the railing, suddenly collapsed back to a bench, hunched over the urn, pressing it to her. I held my students that day and they wept hard, shuddering, slightly seasick and so cold. I have the plaque the paper's staff made to remember him, the one with a photo of him flipping pancakes and their promise that the work he did would never be forgotten in the newsroom. When the paper folded a few years later, starved into submission, that is the one artifact I saved. It's in my office now, confusing visitors: "What newspaper?" they ask.

Then there was the English major who married another English major and went to the local private university with the white pillars and green lawns. He loved John Steinbeck and poetry. But long before those loves, he loved the air force and wanted a military career like his father's. But epilepsy prohibited that. He had struggled to reorient his life and confessed that he still felt a keen disappointment and resentment sometimes. He felt he had let down his father and that his own body had let down him. He died, his wife told me, when a seizure struck as he was alone and gardening, watering the backyard; he fell, and the water pooled around him and he drowned.

After last week's campus holiday party was over, after the raffle tickets had been drawn and the poinsettia centerpieces claimed, after the student musical trio had taken their bows and packed up their instruments, I returned to my office. A colleague handed me a copy of the newspaper. "Look," she said, "another IVC student, dead." I looked. He was, yes, one of mine, a student who I'd sized up quickly that first week in August: bright but easily bored. At risk, I thought. So I'd done what you do: I learned his name and spoke to him often. I praised his work, even if it was lacking, and pushed him further. I made sure my tone was especially welcoming. I made him, as much as I could, part of a class that he obviously didn't want to join. He stayed with it a while but then, a few weeks in, disappeared. I asked after him. The other students hadn't seen him. I figured he'd be back, another semester perhaps. He was bright, just not ready.
From the Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2007:
Fall kills man, 19; alcohol is a factor
A 19-year-old man slipped and fell to his death from a second-story hotel balcony after a night of drinking with other underage friends, police said.
M----- C----- of Irvine lost his balance Saturday night after jumping up and down and placing his hands on the balcony railing at Vacation Village Hotel, witnesses said. C----- was taken to Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, where he died Sunday. Police said they found empty beer bottles inside a hotel room where the young men were staying.
His funeral was today at noon at the Voyager Bible Church, next door to the college.

Of course, other students have died through the years, students who are not "mine" in any sense of that term, all with the same statistical regularity that is to be expected. The administration sends out condolences. Colleagues talk about it, tear up, pull themselves together, go to class. Just this semester, in November, a 21-year-old student died in the parking lot, in the middle of the night, of still unknown causes, though a newspaper reporter I spoke to called it suicide. His body went undiscovered for over ten hours in an unforgivable and appalling security oversight. Finally his worried father arrived on campus to look for him and found him in his vehicle, the windows rolled down on a misty day, dead. I watched the police string yellow tape, pull a tarp over the car.

This week is finals week. I'll accept their papers and shake their hands and wish them well. I will try not to say "Don't die," because that wouldn't do, of course, and, besides that, it's impossible. They will die, anyway. A few sooner, most later. But perhaps I can come up with some words of wishful teacherly caution such as: "Take more care than you think you may need. Take the care I offer, that others around you give. Take care of yourselves. Live."


Anonymous said...

This is why we need a newspaper at the college.

Brenda Borron said...

We are so fortunate to have, in Lisa, a colleague who can so beautifully express our thoughts and feelings. I am moved by her piece, and I am reminded by her piece that every word we say to students, every gesture and expression we use can carry tremendous weight, reminded that our students are often hurting and that we have the privilege of ameliorating that hurt. Even during this sad time, thank you, Lisa, for reminding us of the nature of our calling and the joys and sorrows attendant to it.

Mary Anne Van Zuyle said...

You are a gift, Lisa.

Anonymous said...

Did the college send a contingent to the memorial? Did Glenn go?

Rebel Girl said...

I understand that Cessa and the ASIVC students attended along with a few professors and other student friends. I do not believe Glenn attended.

Anonymous said...

Glenn was not obligated to be there.

Quiet night

And I followed her to the station With a suitcase in my hand And I followed her to the station With a suitcase in my hand Well, ...