Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The night smelled ripe tonight, and it was a full forty degrees cooler than last year as I walked into the temperature-controlled building on the Amherst College campus where the graduation would be held. My one night a year of professional affiliation with my previous place of employment, and tonight the graduates consisted of a group of 13 students, the majority of whom had been in kindergarten, under my tutelage, during the school year of 2002-2003.
It is nearly bizarre for me to look back on myself as a kindergarten teacher, and a good one. I had no children of my own, and I really honestly loved my students. I thought about them at night when I was falling asleep, I would be jerked awake by ideas that might inspire one or the other. I was absolutely energized every day by the fact that these little people loved me; more than that, they revered me, and I sucked it up and it helped me to grow. I was very happy.
This particular group of children were very, very diverse. Not physically speaking, or socioeconomically speaking, but just as a group. Very, very different little souls, some quirky, some less so, but there was virtually no status quo. They were a trip to work with, but I knew I would not finish up the school year with them, because I was having a baby... right. I was having a baby.
So I was mostly their kindergarten teacher, up until the 2nd of May, and then I went on my maternity leave. They kissed me, and hugged me. They made me a big cake that said, "We love you, Carol." They all brought me presents, and they made me cards, and they cried when I left.

Tonight, some of the children are taller than me. Their voices are changing, they are becoming young women, they are singers, actors, writers, moving on to various high schools and academies and performing arts schools. I hugged each one of them, marvelling in their accomplishments, and they all asked about my children and noted my swelling belly.

And I thought back to when they were in kindergarten, when, on the night of May 13th, the phone chain began. The director of the school, moved by the vision of ghastly rumors spreading like fire from classroom to classroom, telephoned each teacher, who telephoned each parent. The call was the same: The baby has died, we don't know why. At that time, they didn't even know her name. Each child was to be informed. They would all know the same thing. This is very sad. We don't always know why this happens. Your class will have a meeting about this in the morning.

By the morning the baby had a name, Charlotte, and the classes did meet. Meanwhile, a mother who was a midwife held a meeting for the parents in the gym. People cried, asked questions, didn't know what to do or say. I was in the hospital, paralyzed in a double bed, curled like a fiddlehead around my husband while my baby was transported to another hospital to be autopsied. My life was over. The questions continued. Kids wondered if I would have another baby. They wondered what happened. So did I.

Cards came, flowers were sent. The midwife mother told me she would love to hear my birth story. People showed up at the memorial, and they brought more flowers. Parents whose children I had loved as my own felt heartbroken for me, the sweet young mother whose only child had died. They didn't know what to do, so many did nothing.

When I went to the school picnic the next fall, four months later, nobody spoke to me. Not one, single person. I walked around, as if in a daze, and believe me when I tell you I was crawling out of a hole and did not seek anyone out. They looked at me from a distance, but they did not talk to me. The kids did, of course. The kids hugged me and looked at me only a little sideways, but to them I was still Carol and they didn't need to ask questions. But to the parents, I was a terrifying proposition. When I left, I was tremendously relieved at their lack of courage. I had no energy for talking.

So tonight, I looked at the graduates, fledged in part by me, and I saw them as the children who would always, always remember that their kindergarten teacher had a baby that died. They will never forget that, as I will never forget them, the children who puzzled over my first ultrasound images, and who rubbed my belly and sang to Charlotte. She always danced to their singing, and she lived in that classroom for most of her life. When I returned to teach the same group as first graders the next year, they greeted me with open honesty, with questions about my baby that adults never would have dared to ask, and I appreciated them like nothing else. They were my friends, these little people who weren't afraid to meet my eye and ask what had happened.

I wondered, tonight, how many of them thought of this. Remembered me, then, or her.


Hope's Mama said...

Ahh, the people who say nothing. The ones who were there the entire 40+ weeks, cheering me on, waiting for the big news. So many of them have simply vanished. For the most part I am glad, as it shows just the kind of people they really are. There is something so special about the innocence of children though. I didn't really know any children while pregnant, at least not any who were old enough to understand.

charmedgirl said...

i sometimes wonder whether an adult could ever really, truly, become/make a new friend.

i'm sure the kids thought of charlotte. i'm sure of it.

Heather said...

Oh Carol. That was a very touching post. The school, the kids, the parents. It's all such an interesting dynamic, isn't it?

I'm sure too, that those students thought of Charlotte.

jojo said...

i can tell you that the kids talked about charlotte when they talked about you, years after you were gone from the school, when your little ones turned into my third and fourth graders.

Shannon said...

I'm sure they remember you and Charlotte. I'm sure when they see you or think about you they remember. And probably for the rest of their lives if they ever come in contact with someone whose baby died they will remember Charlotte and how she died when they were kindergartners.

I can understand the adults not knowing what to say. I still don't know what to say after all I've been through. I'm going to a memorial service tomorrow for an eleven year old girl who died tragically last week of carbon monoxide poisoning. I have no idea what to say to her father and it makes me so sad. Is "I'm so sorry" enough?

Charlotte's Mama said...

Oh, yes. I'm so sorry is most definitely enough in my opinion. I mean, really, what else could be said? I really don't envy you.
And I wonder if it came out at all in my rushed writing late last night that I really didn't fault those parents, that I was almost relieved they didn't talk to me, and while there was some shock factor to the fact that NOBODY got up the guts, I felt sorry for each and every one of them because if I had been them, I would have avoided me, too. For sure.

Shannon said...

I know that after I went back to work after Isabella died that while it was uncomfortable I was glad that the people who stopped by in the first few days did. I think that is why I wouldn't want to avoid someone, I would want them to know I was thinking of them and acknowledge their loss. And yeah, what else can you say but "I'm so sorry". It's when people try to say more that they stick their foot in their mouths. Maybe that's why they stay away, so they won't risk it.

kris said...

I am sure Charlotte was among their thoughts when they saw you. But so were the songs you sang, and the silly things you did, and all the times you made them laugh. They remembered making the sounds of the alphabet with you and counting to 100. For some of them, you were their FIRST teacher...most definitely a special honor.

loribeth said...

We've had several teachers attend our support group over the years that I've been there, & it always hits me when they talk about their "kids," especially the very young ones. It's such a sad way for kids to learn about death. They are such resilient & honest beings though, aren't they?