The Loss of a Student: A Music Teacher's Perspective

     This has been the hardest blog for me to write.  Somehow I feel my words will fall short of what I really want to say.  Honestly, I was hoping I would never have to even think about one of my students dying, but October 14, 2016 changed my life forever.  First, a little background . . . .
     I have been teaching in my small-town school district for 11 years--that means EVERY student who attends the elementary is stuck with me for at least 6 years :)  And, since I teach K-12, some of them choose to journey on with me even longer (which I consider to be a great honor).  This October marks the first time I have lost one of those precious students--and it turned my world upside down.
Kennedy Raye Tennant was a beautiful and lively girl who I had the privilege of teaching for 7 years (I hate that I have to use past-tense verbs--it's so wrong).  On the morning of October 14, she was killed in a car accident on the way to school.  Her older brother and sister were also in the accident, and though their injuries were serious, are on the road to recovery.  I'm very thankful for that, since both of them were former students of mine as well! 
     I teach my mornings at the elementary and then go to the middle/high school after lunch.  I heard within an hour or so of school starting that a student had passed away, but I didn't know who.  I saw the teary eyes of other teachers who had heard who it was.  I asked one of them if it was a former student from the elementary and they nodded.  I decided I should get through the first half of my teaching day before I let myself know the terrible news.  The elementary kids didn't know what was going on and I knew I wouldn't be able to hide it once I knew.  And to be honest, I could tell from the looks on people's faces, this wasn't just a student, it was one of those students who has everyone's heart strings.  
Kennedy--Always a fashionista!
     After the last elementary class left my classroom, I reluctantly read my email.  The second I saw who the family was, my heart was broken.  This family is SO involved in our community and are such positive supporters of our school district in every way.  To have them lose a child seemed simply unfair.  And to have them lose their baby--Kennedy . . . . I put my head down on my desk and sobbed.  Not just cried--my body was shaking and I could barely fathom what I had just read.  It just shouldn't be--NO 6th grader should die.  No kid should die.  NO STUDENT should die.  Maybe it's just that NO ONE should die. 
     The teacher's lounge was so quiet during lunch.  I  asked around what they thought it would be like when I got up to the high school.  I didn't know what to expect.  I had a friend die when I was a freshman in high school, so I knew how many of the students were feeling, but I didn't want to downplay how fresh their hurt--no, OUR hurt was for Kennedy. 
     When I got to the high school, it was nearly deserted.  We still weren''t certain if Savannah and Nolan were going to be alright, so all of their friends were super upset.  And honestly, Kennedy was one of those kids who grew up going to everything with the "big kids."  She was at high school basketball practices and hung out with her older siblings' friends.  She was everyone's little sister.  This wasn't just any student, she was arguably the princess of our whole school district.  I'd like to take a moment to tell you about her.
     Kennedy was sassy.  She was ALWAYS smiling.  She was friendly and outgoing.  She was fiercely competitive in sports, but very sweet in person.  She knew how to wiggle her way into the heart of anyone she met.  She was a great singer and a fun dancer.  She wore dresses for at least 2 years straight when she was a little girl and she possibly had the thickest most gorgeous hair I have ever seen on a kindergarten student.  She was a diva--but in a way that everyone loved her.  Including me. 
How I remember Kennedy when she was little!
      You see, you don't just go to school every day as a teacher and only think about the objectives you are teaching.  My students are my "2nd set of kids" as I like to call them.  Sure, not all of them love my class or love me, but I love them.  I try to figure out what makes them excited about learning and try to integrate it into my class.  For some of them, like Kennedy, that comes easily, because she already loved to sing and dance.  And for those students who audition for parts in shows, like Kennedy, an even deeper bond is formed.  Let me tell you, that girl was one spunky Junior Djinn (dancers for the genie in Aladdin).  And for music teachers, like myself, I didn't just have one year of great memories with Kennedy, I had SEVEN.  She was one of the little kids I looked at and always thought, "Boy, I can't wait to see what she's like in high school."  I'm deeply grieved that I will never get to know.  And even more grieved that her family will never get to know.  Savannah lost her only sister--I can't imagine that pain.
     The following days were terrible.  We didn't do a whole lot of academic learning at the middle and high school those following days, but they were learning a very hard lesson about life.  Some days we sat and talked about Kennedy, other days it was less organized "free time," which trust me, felt nothing like free time.  We had to move our choir concert because I just couldn't imagine making students perform when we returned to school on Monday.  It was the right call. 
     Our middle school students asked if we could dedicate our re-scheduled concert to Kennedy.  I was so pleased they asked, because I needed a way to work through my grief for this little girl, and I didn't know where to begin.  We began practicing our concert songs again and each class nominated and voted on one song to sing for Kennedy.  Her family came to the concert, which I was so grateful for, and we all sobbed through the songs for Kennedy.  I will ALWAYS think of Kennedy whenever I hear those two songs again--and for that I am thankful!
     I would be lying if I didn't add in that I was an extremely emotional teacher for about a month after Kennedy died.  I've never cried because a class or a student "got to me" before, and I let it happen a few times.  It was really hard for me to understand how students could be rude and disrespectful after an event that taught us how precious life really is.  But, I suppose my students didn't understand how deeply I was hurting for Kennedy and her family.  I don't think they even have a clue how much I care about each and every one of them.  And perhaps, they were just being teenagers and oblivious to what was going on around them.  I wish I hadn't "lost it" and cried a couple of times, but honestly, I was broken and still mending, but also trying to be at school to help the students.  It was too much for me to hold it together. 
6th Grade Kennedy
     Time has helped some.  I don't cry every day, but I am crying as I write this blog today.  I feel sorrow when I see Kennedy's family--incomplete without their little diva.  They have been so open about their grief and how they are doing, which I really appreciate.  So I want to leave you with something that was said multiple times as a motto of Kennedy's family--"I love you more."  Be the rainbow in someone else's cloud.  You can never know what's on the horizon for you, your family, or your students, but you can choose to make the most of each and every day you have.
      Thanks for letting me share my journey with you.  And to Kennedy--it was a pleasure to have the privilege to teach you.  I will always be thankful that out of the millions of teachers in this world, I was blessed enough to get to teach you.  And thanks for stopping by just to give me a hug at the beginning of the school year.  You will never know how much that means to me today.  I love you more and I hope to see you again some day!  Mrs. Filipiak

Photos used with permission.