L_______ is telling me about her father’s death. “We’re going to go to his grave on Memorial Day because it’s the 26th. He died on the 26th so we’re going to go every month on the 26th, get it?”
“Is this the one-year anniversary?” I ask. It seems so strange to be talking so casually about this, let alone with L_______. I am not close with her. She puts up a prickly exterior that keeps me, her teacher, away. I do not know much about her personal life, other than the parties she talks about every day in class.
“No, miss! He died on April 26th. It’s the one month anniversary. We’re going to go every month.”
A pang of guilt from my end. How did I not know? But! There is so much our students do not tell us. How was I to know? I try to think back to April 26th. Was there a time when L________ had seemed unwilling, inattentive? And had I been quick to jump to conclusions?
It is so important to know your students. Some of them were like 7-11s: always open, fully stocked with personal information to provide you. L_________ is like one of those wormholes they used to talk about on the science fiction TV shows I used to watch with my dad as a little girl: remote, volatile, seldom unshut. The moment is surreal: the whole class is listening in. A spell has been cast between us; a spell I do not want to break. I have to tread carefully. “You seem to be dealing with it well, ” I offer tentatively.
Right now she is searching for words. “Do you remember a couple weeks ago when I was all quiet?” she asks with furrowed brow. “Like, I wasn’t saying nothing. I seemed kind of sad? I was being real good?”
I nod. “You did kind of seem not like yourself.”
She nods too. “That’s why I just sat there and did my work. ‘Cause I don’t like thinking about things like that. Like, I didn’t even cry after it happened. I don’t really like to show my emotions.”
I look at L_________ for a moment. I have indirectly experienced so many deaths this year alone through the students in my classroom: the suicide of a cousin, the murder of a mother and aunt, the passing of a grandmother, the too-soon demises of brothers and half-brothers and step-brothers. And I have directly experienced so many deaths in the past few years just among the people I know: the fathers of friends, my own grandmother. The one thing linking all these far-flung earthly exits was that I was never good in these situations. And I never knew what to say. We didn’t express our emotions very readily in my family; I guess when you’ve dealt with a lot of pain, you become callused and worn.
But for once I know what to say.
“Like, I didn’t even cry,” L_________ repeats.
Evenly, I respond, “Sometimes it’s okay to cry.”
And just as evenly, L___________ says, “I know.”