Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A New Perspective

When Charlotte died, I had already given up my job. I was a teacher of K/1 students, and I had worked up until April holidays, bright faced and excited. The children and their parents had given me a party with a big cake and a book for the baby they'd made themselves. In class, at book times they would gather close, their hands on my belly to feel her kick. I was the spritely, loving kindergarten teacher and they were the only children I had, at the time, and so our love affair was real and whole. I was afraid that when I left for my maternity leave, I would miss them terribly. I actually worried about this. The woman who had been my assistant for the previous two years was to step into my shoes, for the remainder of that school year and for the next. I had stated I would only take the year off as an insurance policy to myself. Because you never know, I thought. I could always quit later.
I was eight days late, so had three weeks at home thinking about them at school, with the other teacher. The day she died, my friend Megan called my principal to tell him the news. That night, the principal of the school called every single family in the entire school that very night to tell them what had happened. He later told me he did not want rumors flying, so it felt important to him that everyone hear the correct news from the source. They held a meeting in the gym the next morning with a midwife present for parents to process what had happened, and then the teachers all had meetings with their students to answer questions. Each class made me cards, and wrote me letters. They sent flowers, and plants, and food.
About a month later, through my grief stricken haze, panic set in: I had nothing to go back to. Would I sit in the house all fall, thinking about the baby I was supposed to be parenting? The school I had come from had already proven they could take care of me in my grief, so I called the head and asked him for something, anything, to keep me busy the following year. He offered me the position of being the classroom assistant in the 1/2. Same kids as last year, 1st grade math and reading which I could do in my sleep, and before or after school commitments. I agreed in a hurry, and then had 3 more months to sit and wallow in my aloneness.
I was terrified and extremely resentful when it was time to go back. It will be good for you to have something, my mother, and sister, and friends said. I wanted to slap them. How could they know how little I desired anything to take my mind off of my daughter, my grief? But I did go back, reluctantly, creeping in the back door with a photo of Charlotte which I shared, through tears, at the opening staff meeting. It had been 16 weeks since her death.
But when the students returned, with their refreshing honesty and truthful nature, I was relieved. Here were innocent children, unafraid of death, offering themselves, their love, and their questions. One boy walked in the door, met my eye, and said, "We heard your baby came out dead." Then he wrapped his arms around me, around my flat, flabby belly, and pressed his face into me and hugged me for a long time. You can't beat truth like that.
The children gave me something to do, people to care about, and I loved it. It was incredibly freeing to have hours of the day that weren't so excruciatingly painful that I could hardly breathe. The children saw me for exactly who I was, their kind, loving teacher who was very sad because her baby died. They loved to come over and sit on my lap and open my locket to see her little photograph. "Oh, she's so cute!" they would exclaim earnestly, unlike the adults whose hands would clasp over their mouths as they turned away with tears in their eyes. The children offered the most refreshing perspective, that death just was, and that sad as I was, I could carry on while I was sad, a photo of my adorably cute daughter slung around my neck. It was grief as it should be, just naked truth. There was no urgency that I leave the sadness behind in their minds. After a month or so I was so glad to have this respite from my silent home, although I never would have admitted it to my mother.
This is not to say there were not difficult days; and there was a little room high on the third floor of the old house that made up part of the school where I would often take my lunch, alone, and cry. There were stacks of paper there and I would sometimes search for the stub of a pencil and scrawl notes of sadness, of aching pain that was hurting me so deeply. I would feel I couldn't go back down the stairs to rejoin the class after lunch, but when I did, I felt better.
All of this came as a complete surprise, and perhaps the first good surprise in a long time.

I still think fondly of those children, and know that they will always think of me in years to come, their kindergarten teacher whose baby died. They are in 9th and 10th grade now.


Kimberly said...

I love the honesty of that little boy. Once, in the grocery store, my son told an elderly man that "his face was sliding off". The man smiled and then donned the appropriate shocked response. I was mortified at the time, but later, I realized even he had seen and loved the honesty (and humor) of the comment but couldn't really admit to it.

You are the leader you are and one of the blog writers I love because you love honesty and truth. Even when it sucks.

You enrich my days, thank you.

Ya Chun said...


Such lovely children. And perhaps they learned more from you than math and reading.

It was good to go back, but I think also good that you had a little bit of a longer break. I don't know how people can return to work after six weeks or less. I didn't do it gracefully, that's for sure.

Charlotte's Mama said...

Oh, good for sure I had a long break... those 16 weeks were absolutely crucial to my healing.

Big Love, Big Acceptance - or so I say said...

This is so beautiful. While I am not surrounded by young children in my professional or personal life, I love to hear these stories. They make me smile and cry at the same time. I think - if only all of us could be surrounded by such truth and tenderness from the adults in our lives.

I also think time off work is so precious if it can be done. I took 9 weeks off, then went back to work in a program with pregnant and parenting teens. It was way too hard, but I gave it try for 9 months and then quit. Best decision so far! And I'm very lucky to be able to have done this. I think people have worried about how I would handle time at home, by myself... thinking I'd probably go off the deep end. But what does that mean after one's baby dies?! Fortunately I'm doing
"well" and people have stopped worrying (I think?!). :)

Thanks for sharing this piece of beauty and hope.

kris said...

They really do cut to the heart of the matter. We learn to avoid that honesty, that emotion, that confrontation of reality.

This is a beautiful post, Carol. Hope all is well.

Jess said...

Hi, I'm a high school teacher and I just lost my twins a week ago. I'm dreading going back to work and facing all of the students that last saw me happy with a big, round belly. I'm afraid of the questions and comments and I'm afraid of breaking down in the middle of a biology lecture. It was nice to read your post, I hope I can handle it as well as you did.