When the Whirlwind Whips You Back

I do too much. It’s as simple as that.
I never really thought that it affected anybody but me. In fact, I thought that others benefited from my little whirlwind of productivity. I’ve mastered the art of multi-tasking by cutting a few corners here and there, and although I might not come across as being the most organized guy on the lot, I always know what’s going on.
Or so I thought.
I was workshopping a paper written by one of my students this morning, and as I get deeper into the story, I am left breathless by the incredibly personal and vivid descriptions of her surgery to pre-empt what seemed to be an inevitable bout with cancer. I turned to her and said, “Wow, Jess. This is amazing writing. Is this true?”
She looked at me with a mix of incredulity and sadness, biting her lower lip, nodding.
“When did this happen?” I ask.
“Last year,” she says.
I keep reading, realizing that this happened to her while she was a sophomore, and I have spent her entire junior year with her, never even realizing that she had been such trauma.
Then I said something like, “Gee, Jess. That must have been really hard during your sophomore year.”
This time, there was no sadness. A drift of anger joined the incredulous look.
“Not last school year. Just this past October.”
Well, my heart sunk, and all I could do was stare at her. She had endured all of this: the cancer scare, the operation, everything, during her school year with me, and I didn’t even realize it.
Meanwhile, another student of mine was undergoing brain surgery at the same time, and I took the time to visit her in the hospital, talk to her on the phone, spend time with her parents. Everything. We even took a class picture with a huge sign we made that said, GET WELL SOON, which we sent to her immediately via cell phone.
For Jess, I never even acknowledged her absence. I am sure that when she came back and saw that big get well soon sign, she felt like she just didn’t matter.
Nothing could be further from the truth of course. But that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter one bit at all. I saw the sadness in her eyes today. I saw the gentle affirmation that seemed to tell me, Finally, you idiot. Finally you realized that I, too, faced mortality at this too-young age of 16.
We just wrapped up reading Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a tremendous read about hope and the pursuit of holding on to love. The protag, a boy of 9 whose father was killed in the 9/11 attacks, wishes everything could just go in reverse, and the attacks never happened, and things were like they used to be.
I wish I could go in reverse and make it different, but I cannot.
As a culminating activity, we talked about his father’s last words left to him on the answering machine. Ten times he cried out, “Are you there?” And in the eleventh time, he is stopped midway through, presumably when the towers began to fall.
I asked my kids to reverse that question as well. Are you there? becomes There You Are. Tell the ones you love that you see them. Tell them they matter. Tell them you love them. Just tell them anything. Then they’ll know that they are there. In your mind. In your heart.
I didn’t practice that with Jess last October, or any other month, for that matter. I was too busy. I wasn’t there.
And that’s why today is one of the saddest days in teaching I’ve ever had in these 20-plus years. I became too busy for what really matters in my job, in my life. I was too busy to notice that one of my students was facing cancer scares and surgeries.
I’m not going to end this post by saying I’m going to slow down. That I’m going to be more mindful of my kids. If I didn’t have the common sense to do those two things, then I probably wouldn’t have the common sense to even write about it, which would really make me a jerk.
But I will end it by saying this:
Jess, you matter. I know where you are now. I’ll never forget that look in your eyes, that resigned sadness that you knew all along that I didn’t know, and we had reached the point where I finally got it. I’m so sorry, Jess. I told you that today, but I mean it even more now.
I preach Carpe Diem to my kids, my family, my comrades in grocery store checkout lines. Live to the fullest, I shout. It is my barbaric yawp that I shout from the rooftops, indeed. But living fully doesn’t mean being a master at multi-tasking. I think that when you lose touch with the very human beings that comprise your small, wonderful community, you’ve stopped living to the fullest. You’ve lost your direction instead, and you need to heed the warning signs before it’s too late.
I think I need to revisit some Thoreau.
Live your life fully, folks. Just do it fully with the ones you love. Never stop shouting, THERE YOU ARE. For if you do, you’ll experience the sadness I felt today, and nobody should live their lives so neglectfully, so selfishly, that they carry with them the pain of not one but two broken hearts.
There you are, now. I see you. All of you. And nothing should ever get in our way again.

3 thoughts on “When the Whirlwind Whips You Back

  1. WOW!
    I read it as the last thing before going to sleep, but now I will be haunted by it. By the sadness that I think every teacher has experienced when we learn, after the fact, about something a kid has experienced. I work with someone who went through high school experiencing terrible, traumatic things at home and he said no one at school ever knew…. because no one ever asked. That’s what inspired him to go into social work and education.
    I understand the ache you feel toward Jess for not knowing. I’m sure she appreciated the sincerity of your apology.


  2. What a moment that must have been. It is true that we can all too easily get caught up in the whirlwind of day to day living and getting things done that we jsut forget to BE, we forget to connect. It is not a conscious forgetting, but still it is hard when it is made obvious to us. I am sure that Jess appreciated you acknowledging that you forgot. Today know that your post has inpsired me to slow down and connect with those around me. Thanks for that.


  3. Such a poignant post, mostly because we have all been there. I am so sorry for you and for your student but am glad that you’ve had this moment of clarity and can share it so honestly with us. I see echoes of my own heart in your call to action at the end of this post. I have certainly had my own moments when I have shared similar feelings on my blog. It is good to be reminded to live, as silly as that sounds. It is good to be reminded that what is going on around us is at the very least as important as those things we’ve chosen to devote our time to. Thanks so much for an honest, encouraging post.


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