Growing up, I was always one of those highly fortunate children who rarely experienced death either inside or out of the family. Aside from the punch in the proverbial that was the passing of my Grandad when I was 11, life drifted on by with rarely a murmur. It was happy and just. Don’t get me wrong; there were moments when it looked like it could fall apart, but I always felt immensely sorry for others who had to suffer at the hands of mortality.
Which is why the last twelve months have been such a challenge.
I still remember the day I climbed on to the train on a wet Sussex morning, grabbing The Metro as I ran by the station doors. I glanced through the pages and on spotting a certain article physically fell to the floor. Scott Turner, one of my students and formerly part of my year group, had been horrifically killed in a multi-car smash.
What made this incident so awful was not simply the events that unfolded prior to and during his death, but the fact that I – to put it quite simply – had despised Scott Turner. We’d had many a shouting match over the months previous that I’d known him; he had bullied many students and verbally abused teachers and I had tried my damned hardest to get him out – I was instrumental in his permanent exclusion and he’s quite often told me he hated me. So to read, on that quiet morning, that he’d stumbled into the path of not one, not two, not even three but four vehicles was a huge shock. You simply don’t expect the cocky ones to die, especially in such a violent manner.
It got me to thinking about karma, and how we should take care to treat each other the same way we’d like to be treated. Scott Turner was a pain in my backside, yes – but in the months that passed following his death, I found myself thinking ‘what could I have done differently?’ I felt I’d failed him, as a teacher and Head of Year – which is ridiculous, as nothing I could have done could have saved him. Still, you find yourself offering up numerous ‘what if..?’ situations and trying to alter the course of history in your own mind. I suppose it’s nature’s way of trying to help us make sense of things.
I’ve never felt so guilty in my entire life.
From that moment on, I’ve tried to treat every child I teach with the same respect, regardless of how they treat me. I don’t shout; I rarely get into arguments and I try to remember what happened to that boy who could have been a football star.
January saw another untimely death; this time that of my father’s girlfriend’s daughter Suzy. At 24, she had two children. Shortly after Christmas, she complained of a cold which seemed to spiral out of control. After two days in the hospital, she was dead – a deadly strain of Swine Flu had destroyed her immune system.
This time, rather than guilt I found myself feeling immensely saddened by this event. Suzy had two children and had fought long and hard to prove to people that she deserved them and was a good mother (she had her first at fifteen). Regardless of the niceties that people offered and the words of advice proffered, I found myself sinking deeper into my own thoughts – and the inevitable ‘what if that were to happen to me?’ I had no idea how to handle the situation – I tried to speak to my father, but he deals with grief in his own special way. I tried to speak to my partner, but not aware of the relationship we had he was unable to offer more than kind words. I don’t know what I needed and I still haven’t gotten over her death. The weird thing is we hadn’t even talked in three years. It still hurts.
February saw one of the hardest things a teacher ever has to deal with – the suicide of a student. She hung herself after a night out with friends. Formerly a bubbly, bright, fun-loving girl, she had lost everything and saw death as the only way out.
Nothing at all can prepare you for that. Nothing.
After the feelings of guilt over Scott, and the feelings of sadness over Suzy, this time I simply felt numb. What can one say to students who ask why somebody did that to themselves?
I used to have a very black & white view of suicide – I always thought it was selfish; the ultimate insult to your family. A coward’s way out. However, after reading Hannah’s story it started to sink in that some people really did have nothing. They were so empty inside; so devoid of love and emotion that nothing in the world could ever make it right. I found myself questioning views I never even knew I had, and I also found myself breaking down in school. This, rather than being an embarrassment or unprofessional, actually helped me a lot. The students were supportive and kind; they asked sensitive questions, offered sweets and hugs and the kind words of advice that only children can offer. It’s easier to believe things will be OK when it comes from the mouth of a child.
Shortly afterwards, another student passed away. Not a student I knew, she died of an illness that has yet to be identified. Like Suzy, another illness that simply got out of control. Sarah’s death sent ripples around the school and as a Year 7 student, my little ones were the most affected. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to being a mother, and offered me reassurance that motherhood is something I could one day do. I felt their pain cut into me like a knife; I held them while they sobbed, knowing there was absolutely nothing I could do and feeling awful about it. It took a long time for them to recover, but it strengthened our relationships and the whole experience made us closer as teacher and students… I like to think she’d be proud that her death achieved that.
Which brings me to Nadia. How ironic that somebody so fit and energetic should die of an embolism. We had a history – we’d had ups and downs, usually surrounding the men in my life and the friends in hers, but overall we got on well. We went out dancing. We drank. We fell over in the wee small hours. She showed me her wedding dress and let me try on her Jimmy Choos. I let her borrow my sweater. She poured me drinks from her makeshift bar in her living room. The woman single-handedly carried our school to victory in the Rock Challenge competitions, dedicating every spare hour to her endeavours. As a teacher, she was everything I aspired, and still aspire, to be.
The news of her death has been a huge blow. The injustice of such a happening is still going through my mind – why? What was the reason for it? I find myself speaking to a higher being that doesn’t really exist; I simply invent them when I feel I’m losing control. It’s comforting. She had been trying for a baby for two years, and had only had Ava a year or so ago. She was ridiculously in love with her husband Jason. They did everything together – he had relocated to Newcastle for her; she had dropped everything for him. She was a good, just person. So why her?
I have no idea what I am trying to achieve from these words. I feel like I needed to get it down on paper; to talk about the effect that these events have had on me if I am to retain any sanity or faith in the world and how it turns.
As somebody who has rarely experienced death, to have it pushed into my face on so many occasions in such a short time is very tough to deal with. All I have learned is that all we can do as human beings is remember this:
We are intrepid. We carry on.