Connections and Absences

Written in one sitting in the morning…slightly blurry and strange. Enjoy…?

Last night, the last dream I remember having was about one of my students. I was in the school gym after an event of some kind. Perhaps a basketball game, perhaps the seniors presenting their portfolios projects; the specifics are fuzzy, like many of my dreams, though I remember that it was late afternoon. A number of teachers and students were still in the bleachers or wandering around the floor, hanging out together, talking with each other; the calmingly bubbling sounds of relaxed conversation filled the room. And then my phone rang. Unknown number. I picked up.

“Mister,” I heard on the other side of the line. “It’s me, C.”

Everything momentarily paused. I stopped where I was, standing still, my breath held in my chest. I could not hear or see anything that was going on around me. Time, halted briefly. Then, exhale. Everything came back in a sudden blurry whoosh.

“C, are you OK?” I asked. “Where have you been?”

“I’m in Mexico,” she said. “Everything is OK right now.”

I let out a sigh of relief. “What happened?” I asked. “What has been going on?”

On the other end of the line, silence.

*****************

Early last fall, C arrived in the U.S., reunited with her brother and family in San Francisco, and entered my class. She quickly showed herself to be an eager learner, a strong collaborator, and an empathetic leader. She led her groups by example, always trying her best to understand the work and, despite her recent arrival and low English level, generously helping her classmates whenever she saw they were struggling or needed support. She  helped her classmates stay on-task when they were distracted, but instead of yelling at them like some other students (“Work! What are you doing? Stupid!”) she would bring students back into the work by asking questions: she would engage them by asking about content or disarm them by asking “What’s going on? How are you feeling?”

In short, C was empathetic, thoughtful, smart, hardworking, generous, and dedicated. All adjectives which I could use about nearly all of my students, but which seemed to apply especially strongly to her. She had challenges, as does any of my newcomer students, and was working through them with the support of people at school. But overall, it seemed to me that all was mostly well for her. She played a starring role in a classroom video that I later used in my portfolio for National Boards certification. She seemed a budding academic star, heading for success.

And then, after months of nearly perfect attendance, she was gone. Her family didn’t know where. The police were notified. Everyone worried.

Three weeks later, she came back. She seemed to crave normalcy, routine; she jumped back into her group, supporting others as best she could, despite missing most of a unit. She immediately asked about missing work and rushed to complete a project. She checked in with all of her teachers to make sure she was up to speed. She brushed off conversations about what had happened, saying she wasn’t ready to talk and was busy; she would talk about things later and wanted to focus on making up work. She was back again. Until she wasn’t.

One week missing became two, then three, then five. By the time school was dismissed because of COVID-19, she still hadn’t turned up.

Last night, I was standing in the gym, stunned, C silent on the other end of the phone. I tried my best to restart the conversation. We talked about school, about life, about COVID. Whenever I asked questions about her current situation or tried to get information about what had happened, she would go silent. Our conversation continued for about ten minutes before she said she had to go.

“How can we contact you?” I asked.

“I have all of the teachers numbers,” she said. “I will contact you.”

I heard a click; she had hung up. I started running towards another teacher to tell her what had happened.

Suddenly, I awoke. Birdsong and diffuse, fog-filtered light filtered into my room from outside.

I immediately thought of my dream, and of C. I suddenly realized that the story in the dream is not over; the questions I tried to ask are not resolved. Guilt, sadness, and frustration flooded me. Today, I still have no idea where she is.

*****************

While living in China, I knew some people who went missing. This was not because they wanted to go missing; rather, they were quietly picked up and taken away. They were missing because they were not present, but everyone knew where they had been taken. Nobody knew when they might return.

These people were missing because of the arbitrary use of power. For me, the lesson was that power was often exercised without concern for human emotion or suffering – and, more often than not, left its victims completely hopeless, powerless, and without recourse. This was a terrifying lesson for me, reinforced and brought closer to home by news of police brutality in my hometown and then, when I returned to the U.S., a series of repeated shootings of unarmed young black men, followed by protests that grew into the Black Lives Matter movement.

The idea of a ‘missing person’ like C is, in some ways and on a much smaller scale, just as terrifying to me. I still, perhaps naively, have hope that the systems and structures of power that propagate injustice and inequality in our society can be changed and made less oppressive. But on a smaller, human scale, when a person goes missing, there is not necessarily anyone to blame, anyone to protest against. The uncertainty is crushing, the questions endless. How can someone disappear? What happens? Where do they go? How can nobody else know about them? They can’t be totally missing; someone has to know about them. But why not us? What terrible things might have happened? Or are they living normally, peacefully, somewhere else? Are they alone? Are they alive? I remember listening to an interview with an emergency room doctor who said that the worst way to die is to die alone. Are they with anyone else who can help them? Maybe everything is fine; or maybe not.

Yet in other ways, we also make people in our lives ‘missing’ all the time. We move between groups of friends, we pass in and out of touch with people from different parts of our lives; we may even have inconsistent contact with parts of our family. We migrate, change, and grow; we choose to interact with others (or not) and to build or break connections based on our momentary needs and our emotional headspace. There are people I consider good friends who I haven’t talked to in years – not for any particular reason, but because I haven’t reached out. There are other people who I sometimes want to talk to and sometimes don’t; there are others I feel like I want to call but feel shy. There are days when I urgently want to talk to a specific friend, someone close or far away, because I know they can support me with something I’m feeling or needing at that specific moment. I reach out and connect with many people, but also, whether intentionally or unintentionally, I distance myself from others. I forget to contact people for months or years, unintentionally making them ‘missing’ from my life – sometimes to the point where I get nervous at the thought of reaching back out. Has it been too long? Are they still there? Has the distance become too great?

But at least I am able to contact them. For C, that’s not an option: I can’t reach out and figure out how she’s doing. I don’t know if she’s OK. When I woke up this morning, I felt shame for not building a stronger connection; I felt grief and guilt for not knowing what had happened and not trying harder. I needed resolution: to know that the uncertainty had ended, that the story was coming to some kind of conclusion. When someone is missing, I can’t reach out based on my feelings and needs; I can’t force them to respond and help close these gaps in the narrative. Instead, I sit with the uncertainty. I rely on those who are present to find emotional solace.

Today, C is (as far as I know) still missing. I feel troubled but also grateful that she showed up, however fleetingly, in my dreams. All that remains for me are my own emotions.

So what does being present mean? Not only in the context of COVID or for our friends, but for all of the people around us. How can our presence support the health and wellbeing of others, whether or not we realize it? How can we be present enough to ensure no one goes truly ‘missing’?

I don’t know how to contact C – or even how to begin to try. I want to do something about it, but am not sure how. I know, however, that last night’s dream is going to haunt me for awhile.

A few weeks after I last saw C, I was going through her class’ work folders. Students had written their names on the outside of their folders and decorated them to their taste. When I came to C’s, I froze. C had not written her name: instead, she had written ‘Any.”

Let’s make sure nobody ever feels like they are ‘Any.’ Even as just one of many students for me, C is a ‘somebody,’ someone important, someone special.

Be present.

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2 Responses to Connections and Absences

  1. Barbara NL says:

    I was very moved to read this, in some ways it feels like a different version and context of what I am trying to do with my clients- being present to them and seeing/holding their existance as real and of value (and sadly sometimes I am one of the few people in their lives who have held them that way). Thank you for sharing and your students are lucky to have you as a teacher. Barbara

  2. Kailah Weiss-Weinberg says:

    That’s really intense and moving and sad.

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