Today was my daughter's 14th birthday. She is sassy and smart. She is determined and kind. She is sweet and hysterical and like many teens, she is sometimes moody. So, in a nutshell, I think she is pretty stinking perfect. I am giddy when I think of what the future may hold for her. She is far more adventurous than I ever was. It will be so much fun watching her journey.
Long before her journey started, I began my own. I started teaching in my district in 1995. I was 22 years old. Our district is a small regional school district in the suburbs. When I first began my career in the district, there was not enough diversity. There still isn't. There is some socioeconomic diversity but that is it. One of the towns in our district was voted the most boring town in our state in recent years. I drive by barns and at least one farm on my way to school. There has been some change. For example, my town now has TWO traffic lights (up from zero when I first started) and the towns are definitely more affluent. Our communities were once blue-collar and farming communities. Now, many of the parents in these towns commute into Boston and her suburbs or work in one of the tech companies along 495. Kids in our district have lots of opportunity. They travel with their families, play on multiple sports teams, play musical instruments, learn a foreign language as early as Kindergarten, and have opportunities through school to travel in and outside the country. Their world is a lot bigger than mine was. In many respects, they are blessed.
But something is going terribly wrong. My first class (1995-1996) was a class of 29 fifth graders. They were ten and eleven year-olds and like any class I've had in this district since then, they were curious. One thing I remember about this particular class was taking them up to our library where they would patiently sit on the floor around a single Macintosh computer waiting, through lots of static and whistles and other hard to explain noises while we connected to the World Wide Web. We were receiving emails from a scientist working in Antarctica and we were typing up questions and sending them out with hopes that we'd get the answers we hungered for. My students were wondering about animal adaptation and how anyone or anything could survive in Antarctica. It sounds silly and simple now but it was cutting edge excitement in 1996! These kids were happy kids. They loved their friends, sports, and music. They loved singing all the words to "Gangsta's Paradise" which seemed kind of funny because they were far from gangstas. They were fairly sheltered growing up in our tiny towns. There were days I'd go home humming that song. It is funny the things you remember.
The point is, these kids were precious. They were just as sassy and smart, determined and kind, sweet and hysterical as the little girl my family celebrated today. Only I just found out last night that a third student from this class has died as a result of addiction. Two are boys, and one was a girl. All knew love and were well cared for as far as I could tell. All three had struggles too. Some were family struggles and some were learning struggles. For one child, it was both. I knew that these three would have to be resilient and overcome some challenges if they were going to thrive. But death at 27, 28 and 32 years of age is never what I would have predicted for any of them. It is unthinkable. It is heartbreaking. It makes me feel sad and desperate and angry and scared all at the same time.
It also makes me wonder. How can we as parents and we as teachers prevent this drug epidemic from robbing us of our young people? How can I shield my own children? How can I keep them safe? I used to teach with an amazing teacher. She was faith-filled and had a beautiful family. She buried her 30 year-old son after a battle with addiction. She was truly awesome and she was not spared the heartache of saying goodbye to her son so why should any of us feel safe?
I am a strong person. I am not strong enough to lose one of my children. I am hardly strong enough to lose these students. We need to help our young people and I'm frustrated and heart sick tonight because I just don't know how.