The first time I understood someone else’s grief was the second time I fell in love with a poem. The day after our beloved Calculus teacher, Doc, died of cancer, the principal announced her passing over the PA.
Doc loved teaching and, I think now, loved us. After her diagnosis, she had taken a summer trip and then decided to keep teaching for as long as she could. We would be her last class – not something we understood at all.
Sometimes, when we were struggling with a concept or deep into a problem, she’d order pizza to be delivered to the school’s back door & sneak it up to the classroom. We’d stay in and do math through lunch. No one ever complained.
Once, when my home life was falling apart, she asked me to come to her house and babysit her granddaughter. I still remember the long quiet afternoon away from home, swaying with the baby as Norah Jones sang “Don’t Know Why.”
After the principal’s dry announcement, Mrs Jackson – 9th grade Algebra – came on. In a voice that quavered at first, she began: “Do not go gentle into that good night”
With each line, each verse her voice grew stronger, until the end: “Do not go gentle into that good night./ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Was there silence then? It was high school; experience tells me that most of the students went right back to talking. But that’s not what I remember: I remember silence. I remember Dylan Thomas’s words reverberating through homeroom, through the hallways, through the school. I remember knowing that I would cry when I got home.
I had no idea that a poem could stop the world like that. I had no idea that grief could echo in empty spaces. I know now.
Now I know.