97: A Loss for Words

97: A Loss for Words

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Tales

A Loss for Words

I can live for two months on a good compliment.

~Mark Twain

“Attention students….” As usual, it sounded important. Throughout the day, classes were interrupted by meaningless chatter. “…Nohemi Treviño was an honor student. We will all miss her greatly.” A girl had died, and to my relief, I didn’t recognize the name. I had a Nohemi, but not a Nohemi Treviño. “Excuse me, I’m sorry. Her name was Nohemi Torres.” And that’s how I learned of the loss of my student. Nohemi Torres was sixteen years old. She was shot in the head by her ex-boyfriend.

Two weeks before, she had asked me to write her a recommendation for National Honor Society. Knowing it was a formality, I quickly filled the small space provided: “Nohemi is a diligent worker and an excellent person. Her dedication to her work and to after-school PSAT preparation is unmatched.” I left out her most special qualities. Attentive and interested, serious but happy, she justified my decision to teach.

But Nohemi was more than that. I believe she was a symbol for the future and potential of all students of all races and economic backgrounds. Her determination and pride in her work was a demonstration that all one needs to succeed is the will to try. Her death, to me, was a metaphor as well. It represented the unfairness and randomness that destroys the hopes and dreams of too many good people.

Nohemi’s last words to me were “Thank you,” after I gave her back the recommendation form. I don’t remember my last words to her. I know they weren’t “You’re welcome” or “Congratulations, you earned it.” And they were certainly spoken in my trademark monotone with my expressionless mouth.

Don’t smile until Christmas.

That was my simple philosophy of classroom management. The previous year, my first year of teaching, I learned the unpleasant consequences of being nice. I so feared another year of screaming that I refused to express any emotion and instead became a robot.

Be their teacher, not their friend.

To the students, my stoic presence could have been interpreted as anything from apathy to seriousness to contempt. I wasn’t concerned with their impressions. What mattered was that my classes were quiet and learning. The strategy was successful and, so it seemed, flawless. Two hours before I heard the announcement, I had casually marked Nohemi absent in my first period class. The students were not surprised at my lack of reaction, even though they assumed I already knew.

Once you establish control, it’s easy to lighten up.

I’m not sure when, but I must have slipped—negligently allowing the pleasure of knowing a student like Nohemi to penetrate my façade. When I heard the announcement, I felt like crying, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.

The next day, I addressed her classmates and her empty desk: “I wish I knew how to teach you to deal with this. Actually, I need someone to teach me. Maybe you’re thinking ‘what good is going to school and learning Algebra if I could be dead tomorrow?’ I don’t think Nohemi would have said that. She’s probably up in Heaven now, and as great as it is there, she’s probably wishing she could be right here. She loved school. Nohemi is dead, but her dreams are still right here. You know what they were: To learn. To have a successful future. She knew that to fulfill those dreams would take courage and effort. Now it’s you who need that courage and effort. Because now it’s your responsibility to adopt those dreams, and keep them alive.”

Since that day, I’m a changed teacher. I say “hello” when I pass by my students in the hall. When I give back tests, I say something encouraging. Generic teacher comments like “Nice Job,” written on the top, are not sufficient. I never again want to be haunted by the question “Did she know I cared?” To Nohemi, I never said it. I wrote it, but that’s not the same. It’s speaking it that matters. It’s looking at the person and genuinely saying, “I’m really proud of you.” No one wants to read about how they’re “diligent” and how their work is “unmatched.” If Nohemi knew how fond of her I was, she knew in spite of my efforts to hide it. She was perceptive enough to do that. I’m almost positive.

~Gary Rubinstein

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