Monday, November 24, 2014

A Sacred Responsibility: Grieving a Class Pet

Nearly six years ago, I began a remarkable new phase in my teaching journey. My students made it happen. They decided they wanted to earn a class pet. They could have chosen all sorts of deluxe, self-indulgent things - pizza and ice cream and movie parties and so on - but they chose the care of a living thing as their ultimate reward and celebration. And I said yes.

Sarge, the year we got him
I will never forget that class, and one young man in particular who persuaded me and the rest of the class to undertake this momentous new project. I will never forget bringing home our guinea pig, Sarge, from the Oregon Humane Society, where he had been brought by animal control after being found abandoned outdoors. I will never forget his first day as a member of our classroom, or the days leading up to that day, in which we prepared our room and ourselves for his arrival. I will never forget the transformation that would come over some students when they sat and held him quietly during their recess time, and a gentleness and calm would settle in them that never did during the rest of the day. Sarge changed our class community, and my teaching, forever.

A class pet brings a great deal of laughter and a special kind of bond into the room. But I knew from the very first that it also brought a heavier, sacred responsibility. Sooner or later, all living things die. Getting a class pet means accepting that fact and accepting the responsibility for helping students grieve.

This fall, I faced that final, sacred responsibility in my classroom. Sarge passed away at home after a sudden turn in his health. It's taken me a while to finish this post, to take the time to reflect on the experience. Sacred truly is the word for it. Taking the time to find the words to talk to my students about death, and about grief, the special kind of sadness we feel when we lose someone or something dear to us. As hard as it was, I would not trade that experience, that honor, for all the world.

When you explain something to children, it forces you to make sense of it in new ways for yourself. I have plenty of experience with grief, even very recent. It is a sadness different from other kinds of sadness, a special kind of sadness. That's why it has a special name. And the way we deal with that sadness has a special name, too. Grieving.

Everyone grieves in different ways, a fact that was abundantly clear in my classroom the day I told them Sarge had died. There were tears and questions and blank looks. There was a great wave of desire to talk about other deaths, other times of grief. I told my students that everyone grieves differently, and that one person might grieve in different ways throughout the day. Some people want to talk about it or cry; some people want to take their minds off it. Some people want to be with friends; some people want to be alone. I told my students there is no wrong way to grieve, as long as you don't hurt anyone else or yourself. Saying those words made them real to me in a new and powerful way, so much so that I repeated them again, slowly, to let them sink in for myself, too. I wish we could all hear those words again in our moments of grief, to smooth the rough patches that rub against one another when we grieve with our family or friends.

I put out blocks and clay and paper and markers and watercolor and other art materials, and we spent some time just being together - building, creating, or sitting quietly. Some kids got very silly and goofy. Some needed to talk and cry.

We read a book called Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, which I highly recommend. We made a memory wall and cut out construction paper flowers with words describing Sarge. We hung it in the hallway to add to later, and allow others who had known Sarge to add their memories, too.

By lunchtime, the students started asking if we'd get another guinea pig. By the end of the day, they were craving fun and silliness, while I was exhausted. Their grief cycle was at once so familiar, and so different in its pace.

The beginning of the Sarge memory wall
The experiencing of grieving together helped create a new kind of bond for this class, just as Sarge's arrival did for that first class. I will never forget this class, and this first experience of grieving with my students.

Shortly after Sarge died, my students rescued a tiny Pacific tree frog that was stranded and dehydrated in a corner of our classroom. That is a story for another blog post, but I mention it here, because the act of saving the life of a small living creature was a profoundly healing one, after grieving the death of another living creature.

This whole process not only brought home to me the holiness of grief, but also the holiness of living things, great and small, and the tremendous power they have to impact our lives. Sarge, a small furry guinea pig, changed me and my classroom forever.