Role Reversal

I’m speaking ONLY for me.

There’s a difference between my head believing something versus believing it in my gut.

Case in point (and something trivial). When our family went out west this summer to Colorado, I knew that hiking up to 13,800+ feet was a LONG WAY UP. I hadn’t done it in a while, and certainly I’m fit enough to do it. As is my son – 16 years old, soccer training, with the cardiovascular system of a beast. But we’re flatlanders. I knew it would be a tiring day.

We got about ⅔ of the way up the ascent, and our flatlander hemoglobin counts were showing. There was a gentleman behind us – blue baseball cap and all – making steady progress. We looked downhill at him, and then uphill at whatever the percent grade the ascent was. “Andrew, that dude is going to catch us. This climb. Just. Won’t. Quit.”

Andrew smiled, and patted his old fart father on the back. In that moment, our gut knew what our head knew days ago.

—–

During the pandemic, I’ve seen some people banter back and forth about the phrase, “We’re all in the same boat.” It’s largely not true, depending on individual support, family support, income, etc…

Side note right up front… I listen to a lot of comedians. I’m a fan of Christopher Titus, especially his first special, Normal Rockwell is Bleeding. As I was composing this piece, I originally called it “Norman Rockwell, We Hardly Knew You”. There’s a huge difference between our idealized worlds and the realities in which we live.

It’s evident where I teach. I have GREAT students. But individual situations vary widely. I’ve always KNOWN that. The phrasing, “We’re not in the same boat, but we’re in the same storm,” at times is more apt.

That phrase really becomes evident at times, and then my gut really believes. My students run from situations of blue-collar to abject poverty, from middle class to working poor, from intact home to raising themselves. And it’s in this environment that my colleagues and I try to build relationships, establish trust, and teach. Believe it or not, we have more success than people think. And the students are really good people. (The most racist question I was asked before I started on Day 1 was, “will you be safe?” It’s so safe that my own mother has been a mystery guest. But when that question gets asked, I have a pretty good idea what the other person is thinking).

There are times, even after having worked at a federally qualified health center, that a situation will arise that crystallizes the difference between the worlds in which some of my students live and in which I live.

Usually, it’s about an annoying issue. “Hey, you were doing great last quarter! What happened to your work?” Then a story comes, and I, as a teacher, listen. And in the moment, it makes sense. And a few minutes later – my gut believes, because I know that my reality and the student’s reality are two different things.

And that’s frustrating. And sad. And at times, heart breaking. I do whatever I can – in some small measure – to help things improve. Most things that pop up are on-going issues. They require chronic, careful attention that, quite frankly, you wouldn’t want to read about. Plans are made, assistance is offered – sometimes it’s taken and other times it isn’t.

But even when this happens – head versus gut believing – we usually have time to deal with it and process it. Even if time isn’t our friend, it isn’t the enemy.

When it really sucks is when this gets thrown in our face, the faces of our students, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.

—–

I’m still frustrated by my own brain. What it remembers and what it forgets. I’m a great person to have at your table on a Trivia Night. Invariably, there will be ONE category that I will get 100% cold. And it isn’t because I’m smart; it’s because I just randomly was forced into learning one stupid thing.

Like the time our table went 10 for 10 on Modern Teen Heartthrobs. If you hand out enough stickers in a pediatric office, chances are you know who the Jonas Brothers, and Taylor Lautner, and a whole host of other actors / pop stars were. There are plenty of things I’d like to forget.

In the 2019-2020 school year, you know – the one where all the Covid hit, I had one section of AP Chemistry. It was also the year the school brought back Anatomy and Physiology for me to teach. My classroom was bursting at the seams. It was my 2nd year teaching – and I knew almost all the students from the year prior.

It was a really good group of students. They were attentive when asked, and could be insanely random at times. Two classes before we left for Spring Break (and never came back), a student raised his hand during a review session on Equilibrium. I thought I was going to get an insightful question on weak acids or buffers. What I got was:

“Dr. K, do you think I could wrestle a bear and win? I think I could…”

That should give you a little insight into the students I had (and have now). Love ‘em, I do, silly questions and all.

That class graduated – without a ceremony – in May 2020. I can still remember where everyone sat in that room. All 26 students in my cramped little room, undersized lab and all.

The student that has inspired this piece (and will remain nameless) – sat at the center table, facing the window. He liked Nature Valley granola bars (it’s one of the snacks that I keep in my room because he liked them so much.) Good student. Polite. Called me “sir”, which drove me crazy – I loathe being called “sir”. Did great in my Anatomy class, too.

He was shot and killed on March 2, 2022.

—–

The next day or two at our school were odd. Some of our current students knew him, but others didn’t. Most of our teachers knew him – and we all had great things to say about him. Different versions of the same story. Smart. Happy. Quiet. Polite. Helpful. We can’t wrap our heads around it.

Two quick stories from me:

-During Anatomy, in order to show learned movements – I had my students do an agility ladder. This young man was so adept – he made it look like he was floating over the ground. While I was filming it (the drill he was doing was called The Ickey Shuffle), I heard another student yell, “Hips don’t lie!” That got a laugh, and the student got a huge round of applause. He looked like a dancer.

-I was walking into the gym to talk to our basketball coach (we get along and are friends). This student was under 6 feet tall, but was explosive. He was practicing a dunk, and I wasn’t paying attention. He nearly landed on me when he came down from the rim. I apologized – and he just grinned.

But those stories don’t bother me. I saw him at a basketball game in late January of this year. He seemed like his usual self. All the superlatives that I listed above. I even got a big hug from him. That means something even more to me now.

And then he’s gone.

When I heard the news, I was working in my classroom after school. I just sat for a minute. Stunned.

I tried to work. And then I looked over my left shoulder. And I was immediately taken aback. I KNOW where his seat is. His chair. His spot at the table. I can picture everything in that room – not just him, but that group of 26 students. I kept expecting to look over my shoulder and see HIM.

To say that the feeling is eerie would be a vast understatement.

—–

I did address this student’s death head-on in my classes. Other teachers did as well.

I let my students know that I was not in “Dr. K mode”.

That I missed him, too. And that as students – they impact me as much as I impact them.

That I certainly hoped that they feel important when they walk in my door.

There were sniffles – not just my own – when I finished what I wanted to say.

And I really don’t want any more days in my teaching career like March 3, 2022.

But I guess that I’d better be ready.

—–

If anyone younger than 21 is reading this, we “old-heads” will occasionally comment (when things are grim), that burying the young is especially difficult. Not that I’m a believer in the “natural order” of many things, but at least when it comes to the progression of life, I am.

In a generic circumstance (tragedies aside), it is sad when an elderly person dies. But they had a full life, and the coming together of friends and family is not an altogether depressing event. There can be smiles in those instances. It’s an odd reunion and celebration in some respect.

Burials should be the burden of the young. My parents took care of me, nurtured me, raised me, got me out of the house, etc. Now that they are older, our family helps them, and they help us. It is my burden to worry about burying them – and it’s an awful day if and when the role is reversed.

As an adult – I’m not wired to bury the young. It’s as if the program had a major glitch in it. I don’t know how to fix this one; I’m not prepared, and I’m not wired.

And the worst thing of all is that a fantastic young person has been robbed of 50-60 years or more of experiences. And it shouldn’t be this way. My head always knows this – and it is far worse when my gut knows it, too.

—–

We have been reminded, especially on social media, to be kind at all times. We never know what other people are going through. In our heads, we probably know that. And I certainly hope that we try to emulate that and do that.

Of course, no one is perfect in 100% of interactions, myself included. (Yes, I’ve had the, “ohhhh, I’d like to have that one back.” I don’t like apologizing, but when it needs to be done, it needs to be done.) If anything good comes out of the pandemic – maybe it’s the awareness that we are all struggling with different shit at different times. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve reminded students to “give themselves a little grace,” and the relief that comes across their face when they are reminded of it.

We all know these things. Again, I’m not the most revolutionary person when I write something. What I am is frustrated by: why can’t the gut come along quicker?

—–

There could be branching off on how the death of my student has its roots in the inequities of my town, St. Louis. And it’s probably true. I’m not good enough with sociology to write that piece, but Lord knows St. Louis has its problems.

There could be a piece on gun violence. How his death just doesn’t happen in other places. That’s a totally valid piece – I ranted on this for about 20 minutes on the day he died. I kind of feel like that piece has already been written – and sadly, that piece would be lost in the echo chamber.

I’m not smart enough or important enough to get on the megaphone and lead policy change about his death. I’m a burned out pediatrician that now is happy teaching young people about the glories of Chemistry, Biology, and Anatomy.

What this did for me was bring back front-and-center that: 1) many of the people we interact with AND CARE ABOUT might well live different realities than our own. 2) Being aware and acting upon this is good, kind, and needed. Most of us do this – and we can’t give up on creating better places for interactions. But it’s this one that gets me…. 3) My gut is telling me that this can’t happen again. I don’t want it to happen again. The upcoming generation deserves BETTER than for things like this to keep happening again.

No excuses.

His death was already senseless – something that never needed to happen.

From my standpoint as a former pediatrician turned teacher, I don’t want to see time stolen from another kid, another student, another young person that I teach.

I don’t want to bury another young person.

C’mon, St. Louis. Fucking do better. And “just being aware” of each other’s difficulties ain’t going to cut it. My head already knew it; and I really don’t want anyone else to have their “gut” believe this, too.

And to my student – I miss you. I wish that the next Nature Valley was on me.

Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 44 year old high school chemistry teacher (and former pediatrician), happily married, and a father of two wonderful children. I blog sporadically, and if there's a theme in here, please tell me what it is!

One thought on “Role Reversal”

  1. I am so sorry Jason. Any death of a young person is hard to fathom. My son, your cousin, James Michael (Jimmy) died at 21 in 2003. You are right, we should never have to bury our children, whether they are ours or others. I hope that there will be some silver lining for you, his family and friends. If not, make one in memory of him. Thanks for sharing this and reminding us that we are really only promised this very moment that we breathe and nothing else. Love and hugs to you cousin, Chris Rohde Newton

    Like

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