I have been teaching for 12 years. Before today, only one student had died while a student at the school. That student had been sick.
This morning I got a call from my department head informing me that during the night a former student of mine died from injuries sustained in a single-car accident. He was a passenger. The driver, also a former student of mine, was not injured. Thankfully, alcohol was not involved. It's not even clear that poor judgement was involved because the car could not have been moving very fast. Everything points to a truly freak accident.
He wasn't a great student, but he was always cheerful, even about how he wasn't a great student. He and his friends were the average, fun-loving, slightly immature, but never malicious boy group. His time in my class was fairly unremarkable—I can't really remember any good stories about him, which makes me feel a little guilty. My wife pointed out how this brings out the oddness of the teacher-student relationship. I'm supposed to be close to my students, but not unprofessional. Collectively, the faculty has the power to seriously undermine the future of a student. Yet we hope they will confide in us when necessary.
I always define professionalism to be the quality that allows someone to do their job without the emotional attachments that can cloud judgement. But at a time like this, professionalism almost demands emotional attachment. I'm sad for the student and his classmates. I'm touched by the outpouring of grief I saw at school today. I'm worried for the kid who was driving. He will grow up very fast in the next few months. Faster than he should have to. It's hard to know my place is this ordeal: do I have personal responsibility to the students? professional responsibility? I don't know how popular I was among those kids (they did have some trouble in my class). Would sympathy seem insincere?
We all know there are no rules for grief. I can only claim to be part of the communal grief, since I just didn't know the student all that well. I know that how I should feel ought not be important. But since my part in the grief is communal, it seems like there are some expectations. Not that I know what they are.
In many parts of the world (including parts of this country), kids die all the time due to war, poor health, random violence. But at a time like this it's hard to be thankful that I live and work in a community where this kind of thing is rare.