On the Edges
My job title is Graduation Coach. In addition to being a teacher & student support services teacher, my role requires that I support the students assigned to my program to get across the finish line.
I find the title problematic. And the mandate.
All that we do is much more than credits and credit tracking.
It’s square peg and round hole thinking, but here we are. But I love my work. There’s no place else I’d rather be.
Mid-summer, one of my grad-coach colleagues messaged me. She wanted to chat about our upcoming shared course.
I want to change courses, she said.
I want to tweak a few things, But I don’t want to change courses, I said.
Okay, she said. But I don’t want to run the course using all that personal & emotional stuff. My students find it really hard, she sighed.
I took a deep breath. The kids & I need this course. We need to work through our pain. We need our stories, and we need to talk, even if only to ourselves. We need the journey. And that includes our grief.
The first week of July, I received a text from a former student, now a care aid at my dad’s care home: “Here is your friendly reminder to take care of you – do something for yourself today, remember you need time to heal, to find your spark.”
My spark. Time to heal.
I hadn’t noticed the spark slip away.
Sometimes I can’t imagine we made it.
It was a hard one. I know when I look back, I taught better than I ever have. I made needed, beautiful, kind, hard decisions with my teaching. I took risks. And my heart celebrated so much.
It wasn’t Covid. I think most teachers can say that. It wasn’t Covid. We started the year tired. Without the support of family, a few treasured colleagues, friends, and students, I would not have made it through the year. It wasn’t teaching. It wasn’t the students.
It wasn’t the pandemic.
I remember the day they found J, who was then missing four days. I was at the door. It was the sprinting days until finals and graduation, yet everything looming paused as crisis pitting in. I hadn’t slept. The first day he was missing, I painted the back deck in 38+ degree temperatures, with no wind, the heat, and brush stroke rhythm helping reality home. That day, the kids sat vigil at the lake.
Families. All my kids. That was the most challenging part. Watching those I live alongside in so much pain. That, and being relentlessly, powerlessly unable to fix any of it.
We had been together through Covid, before Covid. We were different from other years. We didn’t come through Covid simply as a group in google classroom. When we all went home that day in March 2020, students and I had just finished seven months of intensive resilience training. Exhausted by losing those we cared about to suicide, we focused forward. With the help of mental health workers, we learned how to talk about mental health and the strategies youth needed to speak with other adolescents having suicidal ideations. We learned strategies to build and nurture our attributes of resilience. And then, that one day in March, we all went home.
Just. Like. That.
My students are a family—them with me and me with them. We didn’t just go our separate ways. During those months of lockdown, we met on gravel roads, on street corners, sitting on the tarmac in Tim Horton’s parking lots baking in the sunshine; we talked about life over the hoods of cars, in Instagram DMs, in the 1:28 am phone calls & texts.
We grew and grew together. These kids know the nuances of my heart by the shoes I wear, and their hearts are visible to me by the brevity of their texts. That March, those in my program were in grade ten, the youngest group of our family.
I think about how my privilege has eased the weight of the past months. I often think deeply about how these past months have also impacted the lives of children and families. I often think about their journey.
In the spring, each of my current grade twelve students was told that they were not likely to graduate because of apparent, simplified, superficial reasons – your mark is 45%, etc. Best not waste your parents’ money on graduation photos. We tapped into our resilience like a vaccine against injustice.
Their response was collective, Just watch me!
In an institution where we all ought to have immunity. I often think about their journey.
In June, students traveled by bus to mine & Alan’s farm. Many had already been here, having been out in early May volunteering to help plant 3000 saplings. Our June excursion was our term final project. Students had dreamed of a field trip final at the farm. They wanted a bbq, time together as a family, an adventure, something left behind to commemorate themselves and their journey, one final gratitude. Nearly all 40+ of my caseload students hadn’t been on a field trip since elementary days.
Each student contributed to a Grad Support family mural. Their contributions captured the students and who they came to be through their time in the program.
Students arrived at school early, even students who often missed school. Many did their best to negotiate with their homeroom teachers to spend the morning working in our room, excitement brimming. Our afternoon was magical. At one point, the grade 12s took on the grade 11s who took on the grade 10s in a course-related timed scavenger hunt race. The 12s were a perfect team. They communicated. They worked in unison. They laughed. The 10s were a disaster. The 11s were a bit of both, leaning strongly towards independence. On the bus back to school, students asked for a family photo, and the seniors asked for one. It was a fine, fine day.
When I returned home, a friend and colleague from school called.
Cori, I’m out at the lake. The air ambulance is here. The kids out here are saying it’s J.
It’s a tricky place to lose a student.
We had eight days until the end of June: three academic days, four exam days, graduation, and one prep day. And what felt like a year in front of us.
And my twelves. And elevens.
Each of them is so tied to J.
In 2020 when we went into lockdown, J walked into my room. What are we going to do with Tree?
Tree was a small Elm growing in a margarine container. When J came into my program, Tree was nothing more than a stick. Don’t worry! Just water it. You’ll see. In the spring, it will grow, he said.
You take it, he offered. His eyes danced almost the same colour as his green plaid jacket. So Tree came home. A year later, when we moved to the farm. Alan & I relocated Tree.
At school, we sat around our tables. We shared stories. Students shared photos. Sat silently. Hugged each other, me. They pulled tight together, often passing their phones across the table. Yeah, I remember that one.
Which one of you was with him that night on the farm? I asked.
That was me, replied A.
You. I never knew who was with him, I said.
I didn’t know he told you about that, D said.
Yeah. He told me. [He told me lots of things.]
During my graduate work, I lived alongside J and his family for a year as a teacher-researcher. A year. Many more while I taught his sibling. And I lived alongside J while he was a student. And then all those who loved him. And here is the tricky bit…. All those who loved him.
We went to the farm in part that afternoon to prove our worth. A booster against those outrageous slings.
Our trip fell alongside the nastiest of student traditions, senior skip day. I remember I first told students in my program that attendance was mandatory. You don’t come, you don’t pass. Then, I slept on that. I took a walk—a weekend. Punishment is not an attribute of resilience. It is not part of a family.
We gathered around in our circle. Your final project can happen in two ways. It’s not based on attendance. But during your time here, you have learned, more than anything, your worth and the value in showing up. You have learned to finish. You have learned what is good and right is not always what is easy. You are resilient. This is your family. Your final. This is your decision. All but one student was on the bus.
For the past six months, J had not been part of my program and was technically no longer one of ‘mine.’ The rules that govern a colonial understanding of finish lines are harsh. And I’m not comfortable with mandates. I continue to push and heavy and wail against those lines.
J was not at the farm that afternoon. Like many, he was a peripheral member of our family. That afternoon he was swimming with friends at a small lake near our town, and he was lost to strong winds and a fierce undertow.
Around 5:30 pm, he went missing. The bus had pulled back to school at 3:10 pm.
The students at the farm that afternoon, smiling and sweaty from running and laughing, were his friends. Some of J’s best friends. The dad of one of my students called Saturday morning. If my son hadn’t been on that bus.
June was hard. Trauma-informed practice, being that rock for my kids, is hard. I’m grateful for my rocks, those who walked alongside me. They have their trauma too. The journey and June were hard for them too. The students stayed tucked in a circle, tight to the smallest table. They shared stories. Safety plans. Safety plans. Safety plans.
We honoured, everything.
On the peripheral, like a scattering of confetti panicked and tossed, lived dear-eyed others, studying, prepping, scared, confused, and plowing on.
Our trauma and grief collected others. Pulled more together. The days and exhaustion weighed heavily.
Staff brought food, more food, and even more coffee. Our room is a wrapping of love. I remember going home one evening and trying to plant a row of Buffalo Berry with Alan. I remember being unable to maneuver the dibble bar, the tears, and anger overwhelming, leaving Alan with the saplings, me stomping the trails, Felix Dog on my heels, until my chest gave out.
Do you all know about J and that ridiculous tree? When Covid hit, I took the young tree home. Once we were back, J often stopped in, waiting for friends, trying to leave early for lunch or to get a coffee.
How’ve you been?
When Alan and I moved to the acreage, I remember moving Tree and planting it in the middle of the yard, a ridiculous spot. Bald ass prairie. That damn Tree is thriving.
The kids came to school those final days. Mostly, they came to be together. His best friends decorated a large rock to serve as a memorial which I had Alan place at the base of Tree on the day of J’s public service. On one of those last school days, those exam days when the school was practically empty, J’s best friend came. He came to talk. To cry a bit. To carry the rock to my car.
The pain enveloping so many I care about has made this journey different. So many, in such pain. Our arms becoming far-reaching. I think, too, though, I grew up with this group—these twelves. We navigated the pandemic together. They survived much more than credit obtainment, deadline meeting, and passing. For the most part, for events and situations entirely not school-related, students learned the ways that they are resilient.
My heart stings on the edges. I love them so much.
In the heat and exhaustion and pain of June, I couldn’t remember all the students I’ve lost over the years. I tried, and trying was as far as pain allowed. Like a wall. When I first began this work, I was fresh out of university, and my then Superintendent asked if I was ready for this work, if my heart was ready.
By the end of June, I was wrecked. In every way. I arrived home sick. I spent my first day of the holidays sitting on my bum, painting railings, sniffing, coughing, and feeling things through.
What plowed me most was the accumulation of crisis and grief, the accumulation of pain.
Summer. I love my work. There is no place I’d rather be. Summer. And soon Fall. Oh, how I love. The circle.
Listening to leaves whispering in the morning. Watering trees with Felix Dog.
For once a story is told, it cannot be called back. Once told, it is loose in the world. – (King, T., 2003)
Memory is what binds us.
And my heart stings on the edges I love them so, and I’m glad.