Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"We Could Have Done More." It's What Teachers Think When Kids Fail in Life and in School

The  Slice of Life Story Challenge is sponsored each Tuesday by the good folks at Two Writing Teachers who support that community as a labor of love. 

Teachers naturally wonder, "What more could I have done? when we see a student fail in life or in school. We are caregivers. We want to save our students. We hope for health and happiness for each one.

Thus, when tragedy strikes, we desire to comfort the grieving. We look for words that uplift and aide the  grieving parents and friends. We never imagine our words will be used  as a way to denigrate and blame our school or our student body. We just want to give comfort, to say something that will lesson the grief. Especially the grief of mothers and fathers, of brothers and sisters. 

Four years ago I attended a memorial service for a student who committed suicide in January, 2011. . In one of my earliest blog posts on this site I shared my own grief about Ryan's tragic death and what having him as a student meant to me: Good Night Sweet Prince. It was a sad time for all Ryan's friends, teachers, acquaintances.

Ryan's mom continues to mourn, as one would expect. She has a mission to give Ryan's life and legacy meaning. To that end, she champions the cause of students who suffer from bullying. She champions LGBTQ rights. She has tirelessly lobbied our political leaders for policy change. I admire her mission and her love of kids, especially those suffering. 

In doing so, however, the words of one well-meaning individual have been used to denigrate and malign an entire school, an entire faculty, an entire student body--even years after Ryan's suicide, even years after Ryan's school days. Ryan had not attended our school for over two years when he committed suicide. Ours was not his only high school. 

At his memorial service, an administrator said to Ryan's mom: "Highland High School failed your son. We could have done more for him...."

Comforting words to a grieving mom, words meant to ease her pain, words meant to salve her soul, words since interpreted as an admission of guilt, words shared with the state legislature, with audiences across multiple states and in various venues. These words have taken on the metaphorical life of a smoking gun, as though the one who spoke them was confessing to a crime implicating over twelve hundred other people, none of whom have been called as witnesses in their own defense.

When I see the words "We could have done more" used to castigate an entire school, I get upset. FERPA laws prohibit teachers from sharing personal information about students; even the things Ryan told me about his life shortly before his death--long after he left HHS--remain locked in my brain. Consequently, the telling of his story remains flat and one-dimensional. And even though FERPA may no longer apply after a student's death, it still does for those students still living.

Ryan's time at Highland was not idyllic. Our school has the same problems one finds in many schools, but Ryan had friends and teachers who loved him and who demonstrated that care and love in numerous ways. Unfortunately, Ryan also experienced bullying, although I never witnessed it.

Our student government and administration work tirelessly to create a safe environment for our student body. Our district has a mission of providing a safe learning environment.

Now, Ryan's mom is contemplating writing a book, a book telling Ryan's story and her story, a book for the purpose of showing others that they are not alone, that even years later they may experience residual effects from bullying in school and bad experiences in life, a book that calls for more mental health care for the suffering. As recently as Monday morning, I was reminded that she still recalls those well-meaning words: "We could have done more...We failed your son." We do not share the same interpretation of these words. 

Years after Ryan's suicide,"We could have done more" now stand as a reminder that reticence is preferable to uttering comforting words that might return to haunt the one offering comfort.

As the school year draws to a close, I contemplate what more I could have and can do for struggling students. Yet as I reminisce about Ryan, I also want to ask, "What more would you have had me do?"