It’s no secret that it’s been a rough year at Ann Sobrato High, where I teach. We’ve endured more tragedies than a school should ever have to, all in one year.
In November, we lost a dear student, Tara Romero. She was gunned down by gang members while waiting for a ride home with her friends. I had Tara last year when she was in 8th grade. I had her two girlfriends too. And her cousin. This year, one of her friends who was shot was in my class, and never returned to school. The other friend, whose mom died while she was in a coma because of the shot to her abdomen, returned to school and was placed in my class. She spent a couple of days just crying. In class. And didn’t show up most other days. And then there’s Tara’s cousin. I had her last year, and this year. She’s a bright, beautiful girl who understands more about how the world works than she should have to at her age. She struggled. She struggles. I admire her.
Then there’s Sierra. I didn’t know Sierra, but I feel like I do now. I see her face every day. It’s plastered all over the school. Posters. T-shirts. Fliers. Everywhere. I think about her every day as I’m driving to work, wondering where she is. Someone created a painting of her name, and stuck it alongside Monterey Road. It’s pink and beautiful. The unusual thing about her case is the lack of closure. The trial will go on for a long time. Our school will still suffer. Every time there’s a development, students will be further scarred.
Another student passed away this year that I didn’t know. He had muscular dystrophy. He was feeling sick and went to the hospital, and then died. Just like that. It was the third or fourth time that I heard my principal, Debbie Padilla, who is always calm and seems unshakeable, speak over the loudspeaker, stifling tears and sobs.
And then yesterday. The last day of school. I thought we had made it to the end. We survived.
Orlando didn’t. Orlando was a junior in my freshman English class. He knew he had screwed up his freshman year and needed to pull it together this semester. And he did. He wasn’t the perfect student, but he was honest. He participated in class, wrote poetry whenever he got the chance, and had the most charming smile. He was such a nice kid, and he knew I adored him.
He told me in April that he had attempted suicide earlier that month. He was absent for a couple days because he was in the hospital. It broke my heart. I said I was glad he was back, and to let me know how I can help.
Last week he turned in an essay about Romeo & Juliet for one of his last assignments. I let the students choose a topic that was interesting to them, and he chose to write about why Shakespeare has the two star-crossed lovers attempt and then commit suicide. He wrote about his experience, and explained how he knew now that there are people who care about him and that he’s not alone. On Wednesday, I returned his essay to him with a note that thanked him for sharing his experience, and reminded him that my classroom is a safe place for him. Always.
On the day of the final he asked if he could take the final in the principal’s office. I know he’d been spending a lot of time there recently, not because he was in trouble but because he was receiving support from Ms. Padilla, the principal. I felt kind of bad when I reminded him that his final in my class was a trial and he had to be present. He was playing Romeo in the trial, after all, and we couldn’t have a trial for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet without a Romeo. He participated in the trial and did a great job. Though I’m kicking myself now for choosing him to be Romeo, even though he requested the part.
Orlando committed suicide yesterday. I don’t know the details. I just know that I saw him the day before, smiling. I just know that I expected to see him next year, and hoped he would be placed in one of my senior English classes. I just know that other teachers cared too. I just know that I had to hear my principal stifling tears and sobs again, this time over the phone. I just know that every time my phone rings after hours and it’s a call from Morgan Hill that I’ll always have a jolt of panic - what now?
I just know that I left the school yesterday relieved and exhausted that I had completed my first full year of teaching and I didn’t feel like a failure. I felt tired, exhausted really, but I had a sense of accomplishment. Then I got that phone call and the adult in me said, “That’s just the way it is,” and the child in me said, “But the year is over; that’s not fair.”
The thing that haunts me about all of these kids is what they must have been thinking or feeling. The terror the girls must have felt in Tara’s last moments. Sierra’s fear. Orlando’s loneliness and depression. Kids shouldn’t have to feel those feelings. I think of Tara’s family. Sierra’s family. Orlando’s family. I think of their teachers. I think of the empty chairs in the classrooms that represented a young, intelligent, vibrant beings who were torn from our school through violence.
And I think about how fairness is so important to teenagers. They know when things are unfair, and they will fight for fairness. For justice. They’ll fight with words. With fists. Whatever they need to do to get their point across because they feel like no one listens to them. Like they have no effect on the world. And this year, Sobrato students have nothing to fight. They just keep feeling people being torn from their lives, and they can’t do anything about it. Most adults know that we have no control over outside forces like these. We know that life isn’t always fair.
But that’s a lesson Sobrato students are learning too early, and that isn’t fair.