His name was David, and he killed himself in my second year of teaching.
The Long Island high school stopped functioning that day. David was an enormous personality. A terrific athlete with a giant grin. Some of his basketball friends read poems they wrote about him at his funeral.
David ended his life 11 years ago, and I still remember him now and then. The time I beat him in an impromptu rap battle between classes. He bounded down the hall, yelling, “Nolan is nice!”
The time I pranked him by pretending that a phone call from the main office directed him to pack his stuff and go to the principal’s office. (David was a habitual line-crosser.)
Or how I tried to teach him about self-fulfilling prophecies, perhaps out of some intuition of the storm that surely raged within him.
I see his face, remember specific moments. David was a gifted athlete — not a great student, but what a personality. I spoke at his wake about how he brought people together. He knew everyone, and everyone knew him. He was kind to other students.
His death remains the single worst experience I had as a teacher. I sought help for him, but I was a second-year teacher and didn’t realize how much danger he was in. No one did, not even his friends. I tried to put the pieces together afterward, to see how I missed any signs, but I only found more questions.
Two weeks ago, a former student of mine died in a dirt-bike crash. Last month, the murderer of a student I knew was sentenced. A year before his murder, two students I knew were attacked in the woods by a group wielding machetes, and left with scars on their necks and scalps.
When I started teaching, I quickly realized how many kids were suffering. Neighbors don’t always fully grasp the depth of hardship in their own communities. Students deal with abusive and drug- and alcohol-dependent parents, incarcerated siblings, and violence in their neighborhoods — in addition to run-of-the-mill adolescent angst, which can be turbulent enough.
My wife teaches elementary school, and has come home crying because of the stress some of her students — some as young as 5 — have had to bear.
One time she asked a little girl why she looked so tired. The answer? Her family had been huddled together all night in a corner of their basement, hiding from a gang that threatened to shoot up the house.
Another year, my wife taught a boy who, as a toddler, had been found by police sleeping on his murdered father’s chest. A group of teens had broken into the house and shot the dad.
This is part of education on Long Island. You can be certain that in just about every school there are students dealing with unimaginable grief and stress.
The mental, and at times physical, stress of helping children cope with grief can be overwhelming for a teacher. Knowing a child will go home — if he has a home — to an empty pantry, a house filled with trash or walls marked by bullet holes isn’t something you can just shelve at the end of the day.
A big part of 21st-century education is emotional learning. Mindfulness is a focus in classrooms, in the form of yoga and lessons on empathy and expressing emotions. Teachers benefit by learning these techniques, and being part of the conversation with their students.
During and after the pandemic, schools were, and still are, stretched to near the breaking point. Teachers have endured ridiculous stress levels with pandemic-mandated changes, drops in high-stakes test scores, being under fire by political groups for myriad illogical reasons, and more.
Yes, other professions are stressful. Highlighting the hardships of one job doesn’t exclude or diminish others. Law enforcement, first responders, social workers, landscapers, nurses, drivers — they all face stress and job-related hardship.
But there is a misconception that teachers are overpaid for four hours of work a day and summers off. How could that be stressful? Some people overlook the fact that teaching is more than time in a classroom, and involves more than helping a student learn the significance of Bastille Day.
Most teachers I know use the summer to decompress, and then plan and reimagine their classroom and teaching style. They take courses, read deeply, and contemplate better ways to motivate students.
As summer kicks into high gear, take a moment to thank a teacher and wish them a well-deserved break. It won’t be long before they’re helping a student with much more than long division.
Mark Nolan, the editor of the Lynbrook/East Rockaway and Malverne/West Hempstead Heralds, taught high school English for 11 years. Comments? firstname.lastname@example.org.