Today I sat in the bleachers of our high school gymnasium as we celebrated the life of Cody Wills, a May 2017 graduate, who tragically died in a car accident on August 18. The bleachers were full. The chairs on the gym floor were full. I’m surprised that we didn’t need a super-duper ShopVac to soak up all the tears that were flowing.
Cody was an amazing kid. Was he the top student? No. Was he an award-winning athlete? No. What he was was a respectful kid with the best attitude. He was a friend. A great friend. He was the kindest, purest soul of anyone I have ever had the pleasure to meet. That sentiment lives on in so many individual memories of a goofy, smiling, boy who loved to shoot threes and who loved to make people laugh — especially on their worst day. Cody was well loved. He was heard, seen…he knew he mattered because his family, his school family, and the community told him that every single day. This day was truly a Celebration of Life. Yes…in amongst the tears were bouts of laughter and a host of smiles.
What I left with, though, was the niggling feeling that not every student would have that full gymnasium.
And that made me sad….and mad. Mad at myself and mad at a system that is so focused on standardized achievement and adequate yearly progress and ACT scores and drop-out rates….that some kids fall through the cracks on a social, emotional, and internal level. Even in a small school district such as mine, there are some students who we fail to hear; we fail to see; we fail to make darn sure they know that they matter.
See…it’s not just our thoughts, but it is our actions that matter. Consider the student who rarely turns in his work, and if it is turned in, it’s usually late. The student who is tardy most every day or is absent at least one day a week. Consider the student who struggles silently, copying homework from someone at breakfast just to make you happy. Consider the student who stares off into space – the one we wonder about, whether we’re boring her to tears, or she has tears building up inside because her life, to her, is tragic. Consider the student who…. and here, think of those you wonder about.
It’s not enough to just think of them, to wonder, to lose sleep over them. If we do not ask them questions in order for them to be heard; if we do not show them, right in their face, with a hug if appropriate that they are seen; if we do not tell them in these exact words: You Matter to Me! Unless we do these things, we are not doing enough.
And it’s not just the fringe kids. Sometimes it’s the star athlete or the star student — the ones who think that the only reason they matter is because they’re gifted at scoring points or they make our school look good. There is a whole lot more depth in those kids than what they can do for us. Sometimes I look at those kids and wonder what demons are lurking below the surface. I worry about the star athlete when the team loses the football game, 35-0. Unless he is internally resilient, he may take that whole loss upon himself, beat himself up for it, all without letting us see his turmoil visibly.
I don’t have all the answers here. What I do know is that one teacher alone can not take on an entire student body. It takes a team of teachers, custodians, administration, lunch ladies, bus drivers, substitute teachers, para-educators, secretaries, school board members, and volunteers to ensure that EVERY STUDENT is heard, seen, and truly matters to someone.
I don’t ever want to have to go to a funeral for another student, although I know that the odds are that I will have to. What I am hoping for, though, is that every student feels that Celebration of Life every day they walk through the doors of the school. I want us to lift up every kid so that they, too, feel empowered to make a difference in the lives of others, so they, too, pack the gymnasium if, God forbid, the unthinkable happens to them.
Nancy Voggesser is an Instructional Coach and EL Coordinator for Logan-Magnolia Jr/Sr High School. She loves kayaking, making hand beaded purses, reading young adult and British literature, volunteering at the Harrison County Humane Society of Iowa, and snuggling with my furry family of Sappho, Sylvia (after Plath), Sexton (after Anne), and Sunshine. She is committed to the Oxford Comma.