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After the death of a classmate, Baltimore middle schoolers find joy rather than emptiness

How a teacher grieves when a 12-year-old student dies.

In this letter I will attempt to explain to you how a group of 12-year-old girls convinced me that sadness and loss can be seamlessly converted into life and joy.

I’m a teacher in a small middle school in Baltimore. A few days before this school year started, I stood in my nearly empty classroom stapling posters to my wall. Someone knocked at my door and I jumped, hoping whoever it was hadn’t seen me breaking the no-stapling-posters-to-the-wall cardinal rule. I turned to see a coworker with a grim look on her face. “We have to go to the office,” she said hastily, “now.”

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When we arrived downstairs, I was immediately overwhelmed. Every single staff member stood surrounding our principal who was sitting at the phone, on hold. He looked up to tell us that he had been speaking with someone at the police department. A report was recently published declaring that the body of a 12-year-old African American girl from Baltimore city had been discovered on shore at Sandy Point State Park (“12-year-old Baltimore girl drowned in 'no swimming' area of Sandy Point State Park,” Aug. 29, 2018). “This report says her name is Kaniya,” he said softly.

My heart dropped. Groans and gasps came from the mouths of my team members who, like me, hadn’t yet been made aware. “We don’t know if she’s our Kaniya,” the principal said.

We sat for what felt like forever. Waiting. Hoping for relief. Instead we heard the worst, “She was our Kaniya,” the principal said.

I remember sliding down the wall I was leaning against. I remember feeling immediate sorrow. Sorrow for my incoming students, her best friends, who would soon be shocked by the news. Sorrow for our students who’ve already experienced too much loss in their life and the trauma that would resurface with this one. Sorrow for her mother, who had recently chaperoned our end of the year camping excursion and cheered on Kaniya and her friends as they zip lined, kayaked, and danced in the talent show. She couldn’t have prepared for this. None of us could. I felt sorrow inside for a young girl whose life was cut too short. Who, like too many others, hadn’t yet had a chance to find her place in this world.

I headed upstairs to my classroom. It felt more empty than before. The blank walls were suddenly more glaring. The air was suddenly thin. This was the first time I’d cried in my classroom. The first time I’d felt hopelessly angry at the world.The first month of school was filled with memorials, a funeral and sobbing students sent to our counselor and dean of students. Yet, somehow the pain of loss gets buried in the monotony of daily life. To me, things seemed to go back to normal too quickly — only with the occasional girl coming into my classroom holding a photo of Kaniya, needing a hug.The days dragged on and my classroom remained as empty as it felt in that first week of school. My peers and administrators would joke about its jankiness. My beloved mentor would try to fill the gaps with makeshift word walls. Fellow teachers would give me DIY tips. I think some part of me that was empty still lingered and manifested in the space. Waiting, like me, for a breath of life.

It wasn’t until the very end of the school year when an interaction between a group of 7th grade girls forced me to process pent up grief. We sat at recess. Six girls, three phones, and an impressively intellectual conversation about the impact of Instagram on the self-esteem of teenagers. A butterfly floated into our huddle and landed on someone’s knee. A couple of girls screamed, mistaking it for a nasty bug of some kind and causing the beauty to retreat to a tree branch above. I looked back down, fully ready to reconvene the conversation. The girls weren’t ready just yet.

“It was Kaniya!” they screamed. “You scared Kaniya! Kaniya come back!”

They pointed and shrieked with excitement.“It’s the same one from lunch last week! It’s gotta be her. I hope she comes back and lands on me.”

I hadn’t heard that name in months, and I was glad to be wearing sunglasses to shade the emotions they had stirred up inside me. They had clearly already reckoned with this loss in a way that I hadn’t. They didn’t see Kaniya as a life lost anymore, but as life absorbed by the beauty around us. They didn’t feel the emptiness, they created a source of joy. In that moment, and many others over the course of my short time teaching, I was hit with the plain fact that 12 years in Baltimore sometimes leaves our students 12 times as wise as I’ll ever be.

Our Kaniya is a sunset over the harbor, a lady bug climbing a branch, a dolphin swimming with the tide, a butterfly circling the school yard.

Maggie Nevin, Baltimore

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