The names fade faster than the faces. Brittany. Stephen. Stephanie. Courtney. Scott. Ryan. The list goes on. The last names are harder to reach in the back of your memory. Vanderholten. Marley. Franks. Schaefer. Over time, the faces blend. Blonde hair, black hair, red hair—a blur. They come and go. Some slip away during the middle of the year, or at the end, or near the beginning. Only an empty desk remains.
They loiter in the shadowed periphery of déjà vu. You travel state to state and still see familiar faces—don’t I know you? Was that a student who just brushed by you in the grocery store, or served you your dinner, or took your name at the receptionist’s desk?
I think I know you.
Most of the time, you will never know where those occupants of the empty desks went, what caused them to stop coming, or what they pursued once they hurried out that classroom door for the last time.
Those who do finish the course stay eager and curious in your mind, leaving with almost the same shine with which they entered—limitless possibilities, endless potential, nothing less than the hopes you have for their futures. You hope that you have affected them somehow, given them the tools they will need to be what they dream.
A few you get to know more one-on-one. Maybe they come by your office, or stay after class and talk with you about writing, books, their lives, but then, they always go and you always wish them well. Even fewer manage the transition from student to cherished friend.
Your face looks familiar.
I’m sure I’ve lost students to tragedy before. I’ve been teaching College English for ten years now.
As far as I know, I’ve never lost a student while still in my class until this semester. Such a thing leaves an impression on you. The girl worked in our department office. She fit the cliché of someone who always had a smile, even when she didn’t feel well. Her intelligence and charisma were obvious in the infectious way she spoke about topics that interested her. She wanted to be a journalist. She died at the beginning of a research project about the local prisons—a deeply personal topic for her. She bubbled with passion and enthusiasm. The members of her research group couldn’t help but be swept along. Her loss is all the more difficult to endure because of how avoidable it could’ve been. She was texting. I doubt she ever saw the tree, or if once she did, it was too late.
Her face is seared into my mind—but grief and death are not strangers to me. I know too well how Time loosens our mental grips, and before we know we don’t know, a strange urge shakes us in the middle of a thought and we realize we no longer remember the one name we thought we’d never forget.
Didn’t her name start with an L?
Sometimes, I ask students who they had as a teacher for previous English classes. Some don’t remember. “She’s average height with brown hair”—our names and faces fade for them, too.
Names and faces get pushed aside in our minds for newer names and faces. Five classes finished—five new ones begin.
But, I remain haunted by the incomplete stories, the losses, the absent presence of people I had the privilege of meeting once in a classroom one semester.
I will never forget those empty desks.