connection and mourning

Anna walked into the house, trailing slowly behind her mother as they came in from the car. When I saw the 15-year-old’s flushed face and tears being wiped away I automatically assumed there had been some conflict: an argument with a friend that she hadn’t resolved and was telling Karyn about, something was torn or stained, or the discovery that Anna’s been dating a vampire, even after we’ve explicitly forbidden this. But it was none of these things, nothing that had to do with an argument with her mom or strife at school. It was the announcement that her orchestra teacher made at the end of class: he’s been admitted to graduate school and is leaving at the end of the year.

If my dentist announced that he was moving away, I’d be inconvenienced to find a new person to check my teeth. If a mid-level administrator at my place of employment takes a new position, my day-to-day existence wouldn’t really change. When we need to look for a person to repair our furnace, we’re glad to find someone reliable, but we don’t get too connected to him. I was disappointed when the dreadlocked barista on the corner disappeared, no longer there to offer to steam my mug before she expressed coffee into it. I got over it as her replacement pulled a perfectly acceptable shot and frothed milk with his own flourish.

But we remember our teachers and mourn their departures. A teacher is an altogether different entity, the kind of person who provides a certain mortar in our lives. We notice when a teacher is gone, if even for a day. (“How was school today?” rarely garners much information from my daughters unless their teacher had someone else filling in.) My girls’ science teacher prompts to understand how their day is going before she prompts them about cell structures; the English teacher’s ways of poking fun reveal how much he understands something deeper about kids than just how well they construct a paragraph.

We don’t develop a relationship with the dentist; but, with a person who guides us in renditions of Beethoven and patiently conducts us from one movement to the next, we feel a connection. This is what tears my daughter. Here is a man who teaches middle school band with patience and persistence. If there’s a heaven, it should include a special, expedited entrance for such people, no lines, no questions asked. But what makes him remarkable is not simply the fact that he can endure novices with woodwinds and bows. He conducts pieces of music, but more importantly he orchestrates progressions in the lives of these children.

The teacher is missed, even while the learning has already happened. He’s not taking back anything that he gave to these children. The only thing that they will now be without is simply him, someone who is connected with them in a wholly different way than their friends, their siblings, or their parents. Or, even another teacher. And this unique, personal connection and its loss is what made a 15-year-old sob all afternoon.