A Call for Empathy

When I chose for Kevin and I to write about life-changing events last weekend, I honestly hadn’t thought that my week would go the way it did.

I thought I would just write a post about how big events in our lives affect our teaching lives. Getting married. Having children. Moving from one home to another. Getting a new job. The stress of life that comes with positive change was honestly what I was thinking about since Kevin is looking at a few positive changes in his life soon!

The reality that all of life’s stresses affect our teaching lives – we have to adjust and forgive and seek to find balance and routine anew with each change as it happens.

The reality is though that this week brought more than I had bargained for when I was writing last Sunday. We were juggling our own stresses at our house – my father had been in the hospital since before Thanksgiving and had had his ups and downs. He’d had emergency surgery the night I got back from NCTE and ALAN. He’d spent several days in ICU, but he moved to a step-down unit and seemed to be doing better. We’d already learned while I was away that he has Stage IV lung cancer, but the oncologists were not concerned about rushing into anything from what they could see. We’d reached a tiring routine of Mom spending the day with Dad at the hospital and I’d meet up with her or take her place in the evening after school. It made it difficult to get much of anything done outside of the school day, but I managed to find focus at school to discuss what students were working on. Since all of my classes are busily writing between now and the holiday break, most of my job there is conferring (one of the best parts of my what I get to do as a teacher) so it felt less like work and more like conversation and problem-solving. Even still, I felt more distracted and far more tired than usual – almost like I was wading through jello.

Things changed abruptly on Wednesday morning. They had been planning on discharging Dad on Tuesday…then Wednesday…and by the time I left an afterschool meeting on Wednesday afternoon, I had a message from my mother to call her when I could.

These are never good messages.

She was telling me that Dad was coming home later that night, by ambulance instead of with her. His health had abruptly taken a turn for the worse and there was nothing left for the doctors to do. He was clear enough to understand what they were telling him and he was willing to sign off on going home on hospice. So he did. Before my mother got there.

Please don’t misread that. The conversation regarding his cancer diagnosis and subsequent care had always involved hospice. His greatest concern about his passing has always been that we would all be well cared for and prepared for losing him.

So I chose to be with my parents virtually nonstop since Dad came home. Mom and I sleep in shifts and spend our time with Dad. Our world has been made very small for the moment – and it feels as though that is the way it is supposed to be. It’s an honor and privilege for me to have this time with them, especially since that time seems to be slipping away so quickly.

But I have sent plans to school and kept my colleagues informed of what’s going on via email. My students have kept in touch via email as well. And having them reach out to me means a great deal as well. Many who have expressed concern have done so because they know this pain all too well. Others wrote because they can’t imagine this pain and are worried about me.

It reminds me that we need to remember that not one of us lives in a vacuum. We have lives beyond the classroom that, for good or ill, affect us wherever we are. We have life changing events – weddings, divorces, births, deaths, first loves, first breakups, family emergencies of all shapes and descriptions, accidents, celebrations – that upend our worlds and make it difficult to focus or pay attention or learn or work or grow in ways that we want to or should in school.

I thought long and hard about the kids who miss school for days at a time. Or the ones who look lost or alone. Do I notice all the time? Do I check in with them to see if they are okay?

Do I recognize when to cut them some slack and when to give them some extra support?

I know I’m not the only one in my classroom who has suffered this year.

I know I won’t be the only one who is frustrated and heartbroken and not sure what tomorrow will bring tonight.

I know that I won’t have all the answers. I know I don’t have any way to fix how they are feeling. But I hope, as I always have hoped, that I don’t miss an opportunity to acknowledge that their worlds are changing and offer what I can, both as a teacher and a human being.


4 thoughts on “A Call for Empathy

  1. Though I knew your dad was in the hospital… i didn’t realize there was a diagnosis that was so upsetting and serious. I have had the great pleasure of spending time with your dad and consider myself so lucky to have done so. I’m devastated for all of you, and thrilled that there will be some quality time together, being quiet and close. Mostly, I’m thinking of B, because when I think of your dad, I think of the two of them together, laughing and reading. Oh, my heart, Cindy. Sending you all HUGE love. <3

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