Cover Photo: Photo by Max Kligensmith from https://www.flickr.com/photos/mklingo/2809961438
Photo by Max Kligensmith from https://www.flickr.com/photos/mklingo/2809961438

The Quietest Classroom

The deafening silence of grief

You would think that most teachers enjoy teaching a quiet classroom. Not me though. I like a lively classroom bursting with ideas students want to express or opinions to put forth. I will even take the slightly cheeky wisecracks over silence. The worst thing about silence is its indifference. A sound wave reaches across the space , it takes up room and it bounces from one wall to another. Silence does nothing. As it sits there with its apathy, it inadvertently creates a void between everyone present in the classroom. As the teacher, you have to fill this void with one of the skills you picked up in your ultra-triathlon of a job. To my horror, I had to teach the quietest class one Tuesday.Not a word was uttered by any of the students that day and I did not have the required skills to fill up that void.

I woke up that week on Monday morning feeling crankier than usual. Later that day, the teachers were putting up a sketch for Humanities and English week. I was one of the teachers in charge of it and I wasted no time hating every minute of it. Furthermore, we were halfway through term three – the equivalent of ¾ of a ultra-triathlon race in teaching. It’s the point in the race that I usually hit the wall although it will be my third year as a lecturing-nagging-facilitating-acting babysitter to approximately 320 teenagers. While busy thinking about how miserable I felt, an announcement was made over the PA system that all teachers were to gather at the auditorium at 7.20am. I was about to find out that I would have one less teenager to lecture-nag-facilitate.

The teachers milled into the auditorium slowly as the Vice Principal watched hawk-eye. Appearing like a villainous caricature from any Roald Dahl’s children books, he was gangly, hunched over and mean.He enjoyed exercising his authority over us and would chastise us for being one minute late.“There’s a lot on our agenda and you need to be punctual,” he would bark. Teachers and people who work in our school tend to forget how to talk to adults. Over the years, sometimes months, their communication techniques become limited to barking, condescending and nagging.

Once the Vice Principal was satisfied that all the lowly teachers were settled down like good school children, he gestures to the Principal to take the stage. Usually, this is the point where I switch myself off mentally but the Principal said something that caught my attention, “I have very bad news to share with you all today”. Did someone die? “One of our students has passed away.” Shit. As she mentioned the name and class, I sat up stiffly. I know that name and that class. I have been teaching him for two years. He was one of the few ones with the wisecracks. “The cause of his death is not known but his parents found out because the police had rang their doorbell to tell them that their son’s body was found downstairs. We appeal to you to keep this information to yourself and do not spread it on social media. Subject teachers of this class, please keep a lookout for students who may not be doing well. Please take care of yourselves too.” She robotically prattled on as I tried to make sense of what just happened and what I was supposed to do.

Back in the staffroom, I checked my timetable which had four teaching hours that day and the assembly program at the end of the day. I would be seeing the class the next day.Ok good, that gives me some time to find out what I am supposed to do with a grieving class. I rushed off to my first class and the entire day was like walking on a very large and eerily silent minefield. I was reminded that his best friend and many of his former classmates was in one class and his other best friend and other former classmates was in the other class. I tried to be kinder and more lenient but I knew I was not bridging the space. If only I had time to google what to do and surely, I must be a terrible adult to have to google this. The students and I went on with our routines and by the time the four hours was up, I slumped back to the staff room mentally exhausted and realised I had fifteen minutes change into my performance outfit before our final rehearsal.

Finally alone in the toilet cubicle, I found myself crying for twenty minutes. Did he kill himself? Were we too hard on him? Did the education system failed him? Did I scar his friends by not addressing their loss significantly? But I don’t know what to do? Must text colleague to get on with rehearsal without me. Why can’t I stop crying? Is it wrong to perform a funny sketch on this day? Eventually, the tears stopped, the nose and eyeballs returned to its usual colouring and I was in the hall – doing the performing part of this iron woman triathlon.

The next day, I had the first hour of school with the class. As I stepped in, I saw his empty seat. Just the one empty seat. 35 heads and bodies – slumped over their desks. Usually, this class would find any excuse to enter the classroom late. Half the boys and a quarter of the girls would be in the toilet until five to ten minutes after the bell rang.Everyone but one was here today but there was no life in this room. His closest friend in this class had red eyes and a faraway look. The girls who had been in the same class with him last year were still crying. I wanted to run away. Should I have an activity in remembrance of the student? Coming from an emotionally repressed family, I could not handle that myself. Should I let them grief and not conduct the lesson? What if they need the distraction? Recalling what I had learnt from google – don’t tell them you know how they feel, don’t try to nag them and don’t try to tell them how to feel.Don’t talk about how you have a nagging suspicion the education system failed him.

Managing to choke out the words, I told the class, “I am sorry that we have lost someone in this class. I cannot imagine how awful it must feel to lose a friend this way. I understand if you need time to grieve. I will carry on with the lesson but we will take it easy and anytime you need a break, please let me know. I also want you to know that it is good to see the rest of you here”. Tearing up at this point, I tried to connect the laptop to the projector but managed to fumble it all up. One of the students got up to help me. I continued to fumble up an uninspired lesson on something ultimately unimportant.

The indifferent void of silence sat there between us, growing as the hour past. I did not give a big inspiring speech to rouse the students to appreciate life.I talked about something unimportant for a short while and then gave them a simple worksheet to attempt halfheartedly. I was not a Disney teacher. I did not know how to handle the quietest class I have ever taught. While training for the ultra-triathlon, no one taught us how to deal with the sudden death of a student. Both the students and I survived this class.It took them about two weeks to start laughing and being late for class again. I haven’t had a class that quiet since then.