The Ones I Couldn’t Save

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Several years before I became a mother, I was a high school English teacher…and probably inappropriately maternal.

One particular student comes to mind from my first year in the classroom. He demonstrated a gift for the written word. His passion for music was contagious (think drummer). And his family was in the midst of a financial crisis. He always seemed to end our conversations with the same urgent question: How am I going to survive? 

But I am a teacher, and – every so often – I struggle with a God complex. I want to save every last one of my students.

As an unmarried, 23-year-old I couldn’t offer him money or a safe home. He did, however, mention that his birthday was quickly approaching. And so I did what any loving woman without children would do.

I celebrated him as my own.

Last Friday, I finally cleaned off my desk. Over the last nine weeks, it seems that everything, including a hurricane, has prevented me from accomplishing more than emails and grading in my office. So what, then, was my inspiration?

Student artwork.

During week one, I asked each of my first-years to capture their relationship with writing as an emoji. And – I am ashamed to admit – the amazing emojis never escaped the “to-do” pile on my desk…until last week.

As I was combing through student submissions to decorate my door, I found it – a painful reminder of a learner who fell away earlier this semester. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that I never even saw her writing.

Her emoji? A listless yellow face behind bars.

Behind parenting, teaching is the hardest thing one could ever aspire to do, and I’m not talking about limited salary earnings or long nights of grading. No, I’m referring to the students who never leave you…the ones you can’t set free.

When I stood before a young man on his sixteenth birthday with a chocolate Hostess CupCake and a bright Hallmark card, I couldn’t see the truth beyond the illusions of my own heart. Lauren, he’s already gone.

In the weeks that followed, his absences increased, and I could never bring myself to throw away the remaining Hostess cakes from the multipack I had stored in my filing cabinet. At our last meeting – at what would have been his high school graduation – the shell this young man wore was almost unrecognizable. He had become a father. He hoped to earn a GED one day.

In this, my fifth year of teaching, I still think of former students often, especially those whom I couldn’t “save”. My lens is different now that I am a mother. I understand the importance of healthy boundaries.

But when my little boy beats on his drum just before bed, I offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the perspective – and second chances – that only teaching can afford.

One Year Ago: The Education of a Vaccine Skeptic

6 thoughts on “The Ones I Couldn’t Save

  1. The Daytime Renegade

    Wow. I cannot imagine how heartbreaking your job must be sometimes, seeing people who need help but unable to do so–for legal and other considerations–as these young people fall prey to despair and other horrible things.

    Keep doing what you do. It’s noticed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the encouragement. Truly, the greatest challenge is keeping all the stories locked away inside. The laws and policies, of course, are important protections for students, but sometimes it’s hard to trust that what I am providing is enough. I often have to remind myself that I’m preparing young people for the wide world that awaits them vs. fixing their past.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Any of us who invest in others have the tendency to want to rescue and be a hero in the lives of others. I have often grieved over those whom I could not reach. Anyone who can walk away with no feeling is fulfilling a job not a calling. It is clear you have a passion and calling to what you do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Matthew. I agree that we all can fall prey to these feelings that can be unhealthy, even if they are borne of love and concern. The uplifting stories, however, always find a way to sustain and inspire me to keep going.

      Liked by 1 person

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