Last year I loved my students like crazy. I imagine this was just a small slice of what parents feel- this experience in which your interactions with a person are so normal that you’re sure they have no idea how much you care for them and how much you would willingly do for them. Also, my students were 8th graders, so of course they didn’t get that. Nevertheless, my love for them was strong and real and unlike anything I had experienced before.
I was particularly proud of my kids on their middle school graduation day. One student, though- let’s call him Alex- did not graduate. Alex was a favorite of our team; he would always show up in our team room just to ask for a hug, and we all treasured the experience of watching him grow and learn to express himself throughout the year. Unfortunately, in addition to all of the great things that Alex did, another thing he did was skip class. A lot. At graduation our principal spoke of Alex and the thoughtful conversation they’d had about his not passing his classes in the end. According to our principal, Alex had fallen off the academic wagon because, in his words, “nobody cared about me.”
This was a shocking and painful thing to hear. We had all thought our love for Alex was common knowledge; hugs were plentiful, playful teasing was the norm, and I even chatted with him when I ran into him at our neighborhood grocery store. I had no idea how he could have thought that we didn’t love him. Now, I realize that maybe it’s because we didn’t tell him.
Think of how making our feelings known toward Alex might have changed his situation. Sure, there was work to be done on his part. But what if, instead of accompanying my hugs with “go to class,” I had accompanied them with “you’re amazing” or “I’m so proud of you?” I don’t take responsibility for the entirety of Alex’s situation, but I do take responsibility for not letting him know with total certainty that he was cared for.
It’s been almost a year, but I still think of Alex- and all my kids- often. Random moments in life will suddenly bring me right back to school in Boston, writing on the white board in class, playing kickball after school, or even having an abnormally good time making copies for book club. I wonder how my kids are doing and I think of all the things I wish I could say to them now.
Last night I dreamt that I was in a plane crash. We were on a test flight of some sort, and I was with people I knew from my time in Boston. Suddenly the plane turned upside down and went back up again. We all thought that was a little bit strange. Then it happened again. After a few more moments we all realized that we were going to crash.
I experienced a strange feeling at that point. On one hand, I was powerless. On the other, I was free. I was not scared or angry that this was going to be the end. I didn’t lament the tragedy of a young life lost. I squeezed the person’s hand next to me. I thought of my dad. I said the words that I like to think were his last before he died: “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you…”
We survived the crash, stood up from the wreckage, and I asked my seat buddy to check my burns. “It stings right here,” I said, “over my heart.” And then I woke up.
I was afraid to go to sleep so I texted several friends to confide in them this harrowing experience. I turned on my music. I read Harry Potter. I did all of my things that I do to make it okay, and eventually it was. But this morning when I got to school and was asked to make copies, I found myself thinking about Alex and my dad and all the people to whom I would like to say “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you.”
I don’t want the burn over my heart. I don’t want the regret of questioning whether my care and support could have changed things. I don’t want to wonder whether my loved ones know that I love them. I want that all-consuming feeling that there is no worth in fear or pain, only in expressing love. And then I want to do it.
So, to you. Yes, you. I love you. Know why? Because loving is what humans should do, and because you are alive, and that makes you worthy of love, even if nobody has told you so today. So here I am telling you because you deserve to know. You are special and you have gotten this far and you have something to offer the world, and I love you. Also, there’s probably someone in your life to whom you should say the same thing. So go for it. Heal the burn over your heart, let go of the regrets, and just say it; you never know what you might change.
I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you.