Caroline in the Delta

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 15 2012

Cancer.

This was part of my previous post, but seemed long and cohesive enough to be its own, so that’s what happened.


In the last week of school, Monday maybe, one of our tenth graders found out his mom had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The next day she was given six months to live and the teachers let him sit in the back of the room. They cut him slack when his behavior was different than it had been for the previous three weeks. While I now see that as at least changing expectations if not lowering (and critics might rip at that, but as a student who’s gone through it and a teacher of students that have been in situations similar, I still see it as lowering), I immediately felt a pull for him. On Wednesday he raised his hand, asking to talk to me (specifically me, not one of his teachers) in the hall. We talked about his teachers first, then his behavior. I brought up his mom. I asked how she’s doing, what home has been like, told him I knew it was cancer. “Yeah,” he told me, “it’s the worst kind. It’s pancreatic.”

I nodded, trying to be natural, to let him talk, but I almost cut him off with my, “My mom had the same kind.”

“They said yesterday she has six months. She might do chemo. She lost like 180 pounds, I think. We went to her favorite restaurant yesterday and she couldn’t eat. She just cried. I try not to cry, though. I try to be strong for her.”

Again, moderating my nodding, “We knew it was bad for my mom when she couldn’t eat, too.”

He looked at me. He asked me if my mom decided to do chemo.

“No… she didn’t have that long. She had some surgeries, but she died three weeks after being diagnosed.”

We talked a bit more and then I put him back in class. There was no perfect moment of bonding, no clear teacher-student mental embrace, no closure or next step to walk into. I went to my observation and he went back to sitting in the back of the class.

On Friday, I was pulling students out to fill out tiny slips of paper for the Jars of Love I was making for my CMs. He was a student I pulled out. He sat so quietly and focused, writing his notes for each teacher with care, folding them up, tucking them in with the other papers in each jar. When he finished he looked up at me, a child’s face looking through a 15-year-old’s expression, and asked, “Ms. Lampinen, you got a jar?”

When school ended I literally pushed through students trying to find him before he ducked out. Felt physical relief when I saw him. I pulled him into a room and said, “I don’t care how weird this is. I’m giving you my phone number and my email. If you ever want to talk, I’m here. You can call me or text me, you know, if you need someone.”

Last night he texted. Told me he took a road trip to Memphis with his dad. I always waver with decisions like this, breaking the boundary to a student relationship where rules cut off and lines blur. But with this kid it wasn’t a question. Pancreatic cancer is something I never fought against, never spoke up about. When I think of my mom’s death I think of the loss of her. I never, almost refuse, to think of the thing that ate her up. The disease that literally destroyed her body bit by bit from the inside. I want to refuse to donate to relay for life, want to gag when I look at posters from the American Cancer Society. It’s been impossible to acknowledge that she was taken by something so common. Something everyone has a story about. But this week, with this boy, I took it for what it is. I talked about chemo from the stories I’ve heard from others and what I saw happen with my Uncle Don in the months he suffered through [pancreatic] cancer after my mom. I finally have a very concrete reason to recognize the thing that pulled away two people I love, and I can look at it, walk around it, touch it.

Today he texts me about Memphis, and I wonder how anyone navigates the student-teacher relationship, especially at the high school level. I want every student to be my little cousin; I want to coach them all for the rest of eternity. How can you draw the line between student and family? It’s obviously completely impossible to maintain strong relationships with every student, and often is inappropriate. But where is the line drawn?

It’s heart-stopping to think of how these students can fit into the rest of my life. How if I worked at it there are a handful that I could feasibly turn into my cousins, that I could keep tabs on and make sure they’re making it. TFA doesn’t give you much training on that. I know it’s our job to make students self-sufficient, to help them take advantage of what’s in front of them and find what’s not… but there’s no operations manual for figuring out how to do that.

So many teachers and students left our last day of school sobbing. Some students literally had to be carried to their buses. One went home and cried for so long his mom brought him back to school to say goodbye again. Regardless of all the criticisms of Institute, I think there’s something to be said for this conversation with my 10th grader:

Ms. Lampinen: How’s Memphis?
Student: Awesome! Wish you was here.
Ms. Lampinen: Aww, me too. You already miss summer school?
Student: Yes mame I wish it was tomorrow :-(

One Response

  1. DFW High school teacher

    This is an awesome post. I have the same issue with two of my students who text me regularly one of which is living with his grandmother who is on hospice care and doesn’t know where he’ll live later and the other of which was my “you CANNOT drop out” child.. I often wonder the same thing with the texting, but I talk to their parents quite often as well so it’s not quite as awkward. It’s not worth giving up just because he’s your student. It’s an awesome connection and I’m so glad he has someone to look up to that has been through some of the same issues. You are a Rockstar!

Post a comment