ALAN v21n2 - Death in the Classroom

Death in the Classroom

Marvin Hoffman

Why are all the books you read in school so dark and gloomy? Isn't there something less bleak you can expose the kids to?" My challenger is a good friend, an ex-teacher, a mother who now devotes herself entirely to raising her three children, a most politically incorrect choice in her circles. She is a serious, hungry reader whose views cannot be dismissed as right-wing fulminations aimed at restricting kids' thinking and teachers' freedom. I've had my share of those too. Lucia's question arose from a deeper concern; she needed to understand whether school is shaping her kids into the kinds of people she had hoped to spawn.

After playing back the reading lists of yesteryear in all the classrooms, grades five to twelve, that I had presided over in these past twenty years, I find myself guilty as charged. With very few exceptions, the books, both young adult and adult, that appeared on my reading lists were a dark lot -- tales of mental illness, suicide, racial hatred, religious prejudices, sexual abuse, divorce, and death. In keeping with the prejudices of today's English and "language arts" teachers, nearly all these books were novels and short story collections (I almost called them works, but books become translated into "works" or "texts" only when they fall into the hands of critics who wish to study them as lifeless specimens, like so many dead butterflies impaled on a display board.) Nonfiction books -- biography, travel, sciences -- are too rarely represented in our reading lists. Their inclusion could counterbalance the fictional offerings with less emotionally overwrought material.

In spite of the depressing subject matter, the books are often uplifting testimonials to the power of the human spirit to survive adversity and even be ennobled by it. An ordeal of social and religious prejudices leaves a character not crushed, but strong and clearer about who he/she is; a family wrestling with the suicide of a child is drawn closer by the bond of their common tragedy; a sexually abused child blossoms into a renowned writer.

We have to keep in mind Tolstoy's famous dictum that happy families are all alike and the stuff of serious literature has always been the tragic, the anomalous, the "dysfunctional." Most vital fiction draws on the underside of human relationships and human emotions. And -- here we come to the heart of the matter -- the lives of the students who inhabit our classrooms are suffused with the same dark material that is the stuff of literature. In the past year, Lucia's own three otherwise blessed children confronted within their circle of family and friends alcoholism, mental illness, two instances of threatening cancer, physical abuse, and the progressive decline of aging grandparents. A teacher can tap any kid in his/her classroom and produce a gusher of a list that will parallel this one. Yet, these tragedies and tragedies-in-the-making find little reflection in what is addressed in school where students and teachers act like parties to a pact to leave the "real" world outside where it will not disturb the orderly march through the bell schedule.

When the subjects excluded from the agenda extend to poverty, racism, and social class privilege, the schools are engaging, consciously and unconsciously, in a process which Michelle Fine calls their "silencing." Younger children fare better on this count than older counterparts because, in the traditional circle times and in the less fragmented familial elementary school classroom, there are structured and unstructured opportunities to talk about life on the outside. High school students have long since abandoned hope of finding links between school and the extra-academic world. They may daydream or obsess over their worries when they should be taking notes or participating in class discussion, but beyond that their real lives await them at the other end of the school bus route.

Even when the books assigned in English classes offer openings to real-world anxieties and torments, students often find, to their dismay, that the material is approached as artifacts outside themselves, to be perused, analyzed, dismembered, and -- if they're lucky -- reassembled. Rarely are they invited to explore how the books intersect with their lives. Can Ophelia be a vehicle for thinking about what drives people to suicide or is she the subject of an identification question on the next exam? Treating her as the former does not imply an abandonment of literature in favor of group therapy. It simply reconnects us with one of the basic impulses that has always driven readers of serious literature -- to find within it some lessons for how to live their lives or how to make sense of what they have endured.

My parents were in their forties when I was born, and they seemed old to me from the beginning. Although they both lived long enough to be a significant presence in their grandchildren's lives, my own childhood was filled with anxieties about their death, which seemed imminent. How could I live without them? Who would care for me? The natural cycle of life and death that many kids have access to through their pets was denied to me. Our apartment was too cramped to accommodate another living thing, and the ethos of the NYC public schools in the '40s and '50s did not include gerbils, guinea pigs, mice, or boa constrictors.

In the fifth grade a classmate with a distinctive limp and a spotty attendance record stopped coming altogether. The teacher announced one day that he had died, the victim of an unspecified blood disease. End of subject. We returned to coloring in our world outline maps, left to wrestle with our private terrors over whether the same could happen to us and what it felt like to die and be enclosed in a wooden box. Two years later a classmate with the portentous name of Kenny Stone broke his neck diving into a shallow pond and literally sank with hardly a mention in school. It was as if it was unseemly to bring the disorder of the world into our cloister where it threatened to distract us from the real business of dividing fractions and memorizing presidents in sequence. Of what interest was it to my teachers and classmates that my father was once again on the unemployment line, a victim of the seasonal slump of the garment industry? Or that my mother was about to have a tumor removed from her shoulder?

Like the child who vows never to repeat the mistakes of his parents, I was determined to preside over a classroom large enough to encompass the joys and sorrows of my students' world. In my first year of teaching in a Houston middle school, I introduced my sixth graders to Bridge to Terebithia by Katherine Paterson. It is the story of a deep friendship between a boy and a girl that is shattered by the girl's accidental death in a fall from a rope swing, a prop in an elaborate and moving fantasy world they have constructed together. In the growing number of classrooms where "real" books, as opposed to textbooks, are being read, Bridge to Terebithia has become a favorite and never fails to stir in children the desire to talk and write about the deaths of grandparents, parents, siblings, friends, pets -- all the material that found no place in the classroom of my childhood. Years earlier I had read Bridge to Terebithia out loud to a group of fifth graders who had cried shamelessly at the heroine's death. My students were stunned by this intrusion of visible emotion into our classroom -- and from a man, no less.

Only weeks after we had moved on from Bridge to Terebithia , I arrived in school one morning to hear the receptionist engaged in an intense phone conversation about the whereabouts of one of our buses that had not arrived on schedule. All morning rumors circulated through the school that the missing bus had been in an accident; we waited for details. During my mid-morning off-period, Myron, the school psychologist, called me to his office. In a school district that employed five psychologists for a student population of 190,000, we were in the luxurious position of having two trained clinical psychologists on the same campus, and we had capitalized on this anomaly to build a rich fabric of support groups, training programs, and individual counseling sessions for our mixed population of gifted and handicapped students.

Myron confirmed my worst fears. One student had been killed when an eighteen-wheeler sideswiped the bus on a rain-slicked street. Several other students were seriously injured and had been transported by helicopter Life-Flight to Ben Taub Hospital in Houston's vast medical complex. Chellys, the dead girl, was in my seventh grade class. She was a vivacious, sensitive black girl who had caught my attention with her imaginative writing and good ear for dialog. Chellys was unique in her preoccupation with Dungeons and Dragons, a fantasy game that was usually the exclusive domain of the boys, who were drawn to its unique mix of power and magic. The interests she shared with the boys irked her clannish female classmates, who made her the butt of their ridicule, which had about it the unmistakable aroma of jealousy. Steve and John, two of Chellys's closest friends, classmates, and D&D partners, were among the most seriously injured.

How to break the news to the school? The principal, a passionate larger-than-life woman who had somehow managed to retain her vital juices in the face of the relentless pressures of a big-city school bureaucracy, wanted the kids to get the news in a way that cushioned the shock but allowed them to give vent to whatever emotions might be loosed by the tragedy. The apprenticeship of Bridge to Terebithia had given way to a face-to-face confrontation with death on the very real terrain of T.H. Rogers Middle School.

We decided to call together the seventh-grade classmates of Chellys, Steve, and John, and to be with them when the principal announced the bad news over the loudspeaker to the entire school. The students were accustomed to hearing the principal's protesting a bit too much in her pure Texas drawl that she "loved and cared about each and every one of you." This happened to be true, although it provided a ripe target for parody by students and staff alike. We had rejected the idea of dismissing school, sending the kids home to confront the tragic news away from what threatened to be the mass hysteria of several hundred students reinforcing each other's grief. It seemed better to face death together, to draw whatever sustenance we could have from the group and to have the students derive what meager wisdom they could from our professional counsel.

We pushed aside the chairs and tables in my classroom to make room for the three classes that comprised our seventh grade. From the carpeted floor we tilted our heads heavenward in the direction of the loudspeaker as the principal intoned the news in an unintentionally ghoulish recreation of the reverse order announcements of beauty contest winners: first those on the bus who were safely back home, then the minor injuries, next the serious hospitalizations, and finally -- Chellys.

After a brief stunned silence, the first muted sobs percolated up from the groups, followed by waves of hysterical wailing familiar to me from black funerals I had attended in Mississippi. Some students giggled reflexively; others stared silently at their own fixed points. Rene, a friend and admirer of Chellys, who had not been on the bus, pounded the crude block wall before him as he cursed the fates that conspired to kill Chellys before she could fall in love, have children, travel. Myron and I tried to reassure the kids that all reactions were appropriate -- tears, tearlessness, anger, silence, numbness. And we maintained this stance in the weeks and months to come -- through the memorial service, the funeral, the return to school of the others injured in the accident. Some students wearied of what they saw as the excessive preoccupation with the accident in particular and death in general. Others never seemed to tire of turning the tragedy over in their heads, like a lump of coal, catching every conceivable reflection from its dark surfaces.

The ripples from the accident extended over the years. Two years later Rhea revealed for the first time in her journals the burden of guilt she had carried silently since Chellys' death as one of her tormentors: the accident had deprived her of the chance to make amends, to apologize for her childish cruelty.

For Steve, one of the students hospitalized after the crash, the reverberations have never ceased. For years after he graduated, he called Myron or me around the anniversary of the accident. Sometimes he was completely unconscious of the timing of his call. He was just feeling down and lonely and in need of some support. At other times he was clear that it was the demons of the accident he was seeking to exorcise. His latest call was just last week, almost nine years after the original trauma. Although this call was not about the accident itself, it would not have been possible without the open way in which the original tragedy had been approached. Last year Steve's father died after a long, painful struggle with cancer. Now the anniversary of his father's birthday was approaching, unleashing torrents of emotion connected with his parents' divorce, his father's failure to fight for his custody, the guilt his mother had invoked to get him to stay with her, the poignancy of his father's burial in a hillside cemetery where he had played as a child. Even here the crash lurked in the background. As I urged Steve to get professional help to untangle the oppressive issues that had hobbled his academic career, he admitted that he held back from therapy for fear of what it might unearth about the crash that remained obscured behind a shield of forgetfulness and which he did not care to remember.

By signalling to the students through our class readings and discussions that the deepest emotions and life dramas had a place in the classroom, the groundwork existed for the real-life confrontation of Chellys' death and with the numerous other encounters with death that have marked my teaching years in Houston. I don't know whether this procession of death experiences at school represents the statistical norm for what is to be expected or whether it constitutes a unique run of misfortune. Donald Barthelme's fiendishly brilliant short story "The School" suggests a unique relationship between school and death. In it a teacher narrates an extraordinary chain of events that begins with the death of the classroom plants, the class pets, a stray dog, a third-world child the children adopt, some of the children themselves, and assorted parents and grandparents. Barthelme's deadpan recounting of these events wrings from us a life-affirming desire to laugh about the subject. It produced just that cathartic effect when it was read at a memorial service following Barthelme's own premature death from cancer.

The year after Chellys's cohorts moved to high school, the class suffered another loss. Jennifer, a close friend of a number of the kids who had been on the bus, had joined the marching band her freshman year at high school. On Thanksgiving morning the band gathered for practice before the afternoon's football game. Jennifer complained of a headache during the practice and within a few minutes was dead of an aneurysm in her brain. Some of her former middle school friends attended the memorial service for her in a funeral chapel on the edge of Houston's grim Ship Channel area, but an even larger number stayed away. It was as if they had spent themselves on Chellys' death and had no more to give to death from among the meager resources of their fifteen-year-old lives.

Even for those who opted not to attend Jennifer's memorial service, I like to believe that the reading and talking we had done about death in Bridge to Terebithia ; in Tuck Everlasting , Natalie Babbitts' classic about a girl who rejects the offer of eternal life; in Judith Guest's Ordinary People ; and in Fran Arrick's Tunnel Vision , where we see families coping with the aftermaths of deaths of children -- that all these fictional encounters with death had prepared them in some small way for the real deaths that touched everyone in the group and for the losses they suffered in their individual lives, as when Meredith's father died of a tragically early heart attack.

My final story about this ill-starred class is one in which life imitates art. Part of my reading program has always involved a component that allows students to choose their own books. Since Judy Blume still ranks as one of the all-time favorites, particularly among the girls, a number of students found their way to Tiger Eyes , the story of a girl trying to carry on after the death of her father during the hold-up of the convenience store he operated.

Among our polyglot and fascinatingly varied class population was Michael K., a Russian emigre still so wonderfully naive of American life that he interrupted a class discussion of crime once to ask just what was this Mafia. Michael came from a family of talented musicians that was still searching for ways to live on their gifts in this new and bewildering society. His parents were both giving music lessons, on their way to opening a full-fledged music school. An uncle who had been the family's pioneer arrival in America had opened a music store that sold instruments and sheet music. His efforts were rewarded by a thief who shot and killed him in a bungled late-night hold-up.

I heard the story on the early-morning news and linked the story to Michael through the unusual family name and the musical connection. Sure enough, Michael did not appear in school that morning. I told the class what had happened, reminded them of the character in Tiger Eyes and her shaky struggle to right herself after her father's murder. Together we agreed on a variety of ways of responding to Michael in supportive ways when he returned. Among others, the students agreed not to push Michael to talk about it, to allow him to heal in his own quiet way.

Michael returned a few days later and demonstrated once again the unpredictability of the human species in general and kids in particular. He spoke openly about the circumstances of the murder and allowed as how the families had their problems with one another in any case. Nonetheless the point is that once again a book of rather gloomy cast served to bridge a real-world tragedy in the life of a student. There's no doubt that we could have discussed the murder unaided by Judy Blume, but the book provided us with an instant common experience on which to build.

And so, my dear Lucia, that's a partial answer to why there are so many gloomy books on my reading lists and those of my colleagues. The lives of children have many gloomy aspects, and literature is one way to help us and them find clues to how to cope with the darker side. I don't mean to imply that we read only for therapeutic reasons. Most books written with that intent in mind make inferior reading in any case. The lessons we derive from books about life are gifts on top of the aesthetic uplift they provide, which is rooted in character, language, style. Nor do I suggest that doom and gloom are all there is. Students' lives should be full of laughter as well, and we can look to Mark Twain, James Thurber, Erma Bombeck, Woody Allen, Daniel Pinkwater, and many others for help there. Perhaps we need to be more diligent about searching out new sources of laughter to stock our class library shelves.

Marvin Hoffman teaches literature at the Jones High School of Rice University in Houston, Texas.