The First Day of School, Part 2

Marjorie teaching in a Mount Pleasant park with students before becoming a widow

I love my job. For almost a decade I’ve been teaching at my current school and I truly enjoy every day. I mean, get to teach history and government in Washington, D.C.! I can even walk to work. I do love having the summers off, but I miss my students and my identity as a teacher when I’m away from school. And so I was really happy when Labor Day arrived and school began.

Last year, I missed chunks of school when Shawn was sick and then I missed two months after he died. Everyone at my school was really supportive, and I knew I was lucky to work in a place that gave me the time and the space to grieve. My first day back, I cried when I walked in the building. It was overwhelming, for sure, but it was also a place where I felt loved, and I think that was why I felt comfortable enough to cry openly.

But last year when I stood in front of the classroom in the spring, I knew all of my students. They knew about Shawn’s cancer and some of them had even attended his funeral. They knew I was grieving and even if they weren’t quite sure how to interact with me, I didn’t have to tell them that I was a widow.

This year, of course, it’s different.

I teach both 9th and 12th graders. The seniors all know my story, and even if they’ve never had me as a teacher, they know that I’ve had to endure the death of my husband. They are young, but they know that such a terrible life event is, well, terrible.

But the 9th graders are new. Maybe they have an older sibling or they Googled me before class started, but for most of the freshmen, I am just another new teacher. Yesterday, when I watched them all walk into the building for the first time, I knew that they were not thinking about me. Instead, they were thinking about how they would make friends and look cool and keep up with the crazy amount of homework required of a high school student.

I’ve always been fairly strict on the first day with 9th graders. I want them to know who is in charge (me) and what is (and is not) acceptable in my classroom. I always wear high heels, and I make sure to address any sign of bad behavior immediately. We are going to have fun, sure, but we are going to have structure too. In the past, I would eventually talk about my husband and my children, but I definitely didn’t do that right away. I usually started the class with a get-to-know-you game where we shared something unique about ourselves. “I can juggle bowling pins,” I’d tell the class every year. (I actually can – though I’ll need to figure out how to work that into another post.)

So this year I kept thinking, “do I tell them I’m a widow? Does it matter?”

I debated over that point for weeks leading up to the first day. But in the end, I decided this: it matters to me that they know. It matters that the people who surround me – even my students – know about this major part of my life.

So, as I stood yesterday morning in front of my first classroom full of 9th graders, I told them who I was as I wrapped up the class. “Some of you may know who I am from the neighborhood or an older sibling. But for those of you who don’t, I’ve had a very hard year. My husband got cancer and died in January. It was terrible, as I’m sure you can imagine.”

I looked at them. I couldn’t help but think about how young everyone looked. I hoped my speech was making some sense.

“I’m telling you this not so you can feel sorry for me,” I said, “but so you can know more about who I am.”

They were all silent, of course. So I continued, figuring that even if they thought I was strange, at least they might see that I was honest and open. “I get that bad things – sometimes very bad things – can happen. I hope that you all have an easy and conflict-free year. But if it’s not, and something that’s a little terrible or a lot terrible happens, I hope that you know that there are many people in this building who will help you find your way.”

I ended with a lot of encouragement for the day, and they all left when the bell rang. Many of them smiled at me before rushing to their next class.

I don’t know if they’ll take anything from my first day of instruction. I’m sure on my first day of high school I didn’t remember much of what the teachers said. But maybe there is one kid who did. Maybe there is one kid who saw something in me that he or she recognized.

Because for a kid who’s hurting, I think it’s good to know that other people carry pain too. We all have scars, and for some of us, those scars are fresher and uglier.

What I hope I did today was to provide an opening. “Here are my scars,” I said. I hope what they heard was, “it’s okay if you have them too.”

14 Replies to “The First Day of School, Part 2”

  1. Marjorie, you are such a gift to everyone in your orbit. You are an incredible teacher for your students and for all of us.

    1. Thanks my friend. They seemed to respond well to me today after that speech yesterday, so at least it didn’t scare them away!

  2. Your students are so lucky to have you. What a powerful message to hear on the first day of high school–it emphasizes our shared humanity and I’m sure it will resonate with them. Hope that it’s good to be back in the classroom!

    1. It is so good to be back in the classroom – I have felt a new level of energy over the past few days (even though I’m exhausted at the end of them!)

  3. Marjorie, this is extraordinary. Thank you for sharing it, and for the example of your wisdom and grace.

    1. Thanks my friend. It was a big day – but a good one.

  4. Bravo Marjorie. What a strong and kind message to those lucky kids.

    1. Oh, thank you. I’m lucky they received it well.

  5. I think you did the right thing and handled it in a way for them to see where you are coming from. Yes it is a major life event and I do think it is right to share with them.

    1. Thank you so much. And yes, I think it was the right thing to do – especially now that I can see they are coming to class and talking more with me than any other class ever did.

  6. I love that you did this. It’s so important for kids to realize that adults are human too, not just people in charge. And that life isn’t perfect but you can still continue on no matter how hard. Marjorie, you really see people. You’ve taught me so much about being present and appreciating interactions with others.

    1. Oh, you are so kind my friend. Yes, I hope they got my point – life is imperfect, but we can still show up for each other. xo

  7. Yes, I noticed that with your sharing, I could say,finally: I have pain, I had pain too. So much of society and well meaning friends say: Don’t have that pain, hide that sadness, I don’t want to feel it either. Death can’t be real or touch me. But as we know…. So thanks for being real (as my husband would call it). This is part of your life’s purpose now, you know!

    1. Thank you so much for saying that. You’re right – we are scared of death and we are scared of the pain around death. In general, when someone says, “here’s this bad thing that happened to me,” there’s often an attempt by others to “fix” it, rather than sitting with them in their pain. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Leave a Reply