What I Did On My Summer Vacation: A Lesson in Death and Dying

Ahh…Summer Vacation. As a student, this was my favorite time of the year. “No more pencils! No more books! No more teachers’ dirty looks!” As a high school English teacher, it’s even more so. “No more meetings! No more stress! No more grading students’ mess!” Yup. Still my favorite time of year. But this year was particularly special because I was going on my first vacation in five years.

Hi. My name is Chantrise and I am a workaholic.

Now, in my defense, I get it honestly. It’s in my genes. Every year growing up, my mother would plan a nice long vacation for us to some exotic locale. One year it was two weeks in Maui with my grandparents. Another year it was a week in Jamaica. The location changed each time but my father’s behavior did not. Regardless of where we went, how nice it was, or how much my mother fussed my father always brought two suitcases with him, one full of clothes and the other full of work. And I don’t just mean light work either. My father would read books by Albert Einstein, for fun, because he just knew there was a nugget or two he could use in his profession as a successful businessman. “Work” for my father was, and still is, all about learning something new, creating something new, or discovering something new, as it is for me. Every book I read in my blog post “The 5 Most Influential Books for Educators that Weren’t Written for Educators” I read on what was supposed to be my vacation. If you ask me, taking a “vacation” simply means being able to work in my pajamas from my bed. Not so for my mother who, when planning this trip, shared with me the days and dates I was going to be unavailable. Notice she didn’t ask me. She told me; and if you know my mother at all then you know “no” was not going to be an acceptable answer. So, I began preparing for our trip.

My parents know that I spend most of my summers coordinating programs for my students, speaking at conferences, or, most recently, working on my dissertation so this was their way of making sure I got a break. The plan was to spend a week in Orlando with them, my husband, my daughter, and her best friend. They paid for everything including spending money for the girls. “All we want you to do is show up and relax.” Yes. My parents are amazing. However life, as it often does, very quickly, and mercilessly, changed the plans.

If I were still in school and had to write a “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essay I would have to start off with the following quote by Thomas Paine, “These are the days that try men’s souls…”

The week before we were to leave, I got word that a former student was killed crossing the street on the way home from work. Although he was not a student I taught, he was a student I knew well. In fact, everyone knew him because he could often be seen tearing down the hallways in the school followed by someone saying “Boy! If you don’t slow down…!” I distinctly remember crying with him and a group of other teachers on the day he graduated. We were as proud of him as he was of himself. His death hurt but it was not long before I had to endure an even greater pain.

The Monday of the week we were supposed to leave, I got word that my paternal grandmother was in the hospital on a ventilator. She died that Tuesday. Although she was 90 and lived an amazing life having raised 5 children, 13 grandchildren, and 13 great-grandchildren my heart was broken. I hadn’t seen her in years and kept meaning to go visit but…

My grandmother Willie Mae Sims

She was beautiful in mind, body, soul, and spirit and as I look back over my life I am certain that I would not be alive if she had not spent many a day, and I’m sure a night or two, praying for me. Her funeral was the Saturday of our vacation week so plans had to be changed. Instead of spending time in Florida, we went home to Cleveland, OH for a few days and then made plans to come back. Mom was adamant about making sure I had a few days to rest. It didn’t quite work out that way.

When we arrived back to Orlando, I got word that another former student had been killed in a car accident. Unlike my first student, this young man was someone I taught. His class picture was hanging up in my office at work. Three deaths in as many weeks. I began to question the meaning of it all. How much more was I expected to take?

Two days after we returned from what turned out to be a very, very short respite my mother was reading in the paper about a young man who was gunned down by a friend. At the time, they hadn’t released any names but I immediately thought “Please don’t let him be someone I know.” The next day, they ran the story in the paper but this time they had names and faces. There, staring back at me, was a student I had grown close to his senior year of high school. And in a cruel twist of irony he wasn’t the man shot. He was the shooter. My heart sunk and I again found myself in a place of mourning and disbelief. Yet, I held fast to the knowledge that a new school year was approaching and soon I’d be surrounded by the life’s breath of my job; My students.

A week and a half before school started, I was driving to the front of the building to pick up my daughter from dance practice when I ran into two of my favorite former students. “Heeeeeeeey Momma Holliman” one said. We exchanged hugs and had a brief conversation about what they did over the summer. The next week was our annual 9th Grade Orientation and Induction Ceremony and for the past two years this dynamic duo had served as my student leaders. “We’ll see you next week” they said and went on their way. That Saturday, on their way to party celebrating the beginning of the school year, they were in a horrific car accident. One died. The other is currently fighting for her life in a local hospital. My spirit was crushed…

Myka (in the hat) lost her life. Koryn, is still in the hospital.
Myka (in the hat) lost her life. Koryn, is still in the hospital.

Or so I thought.

As human beings, we understand that death is a part of life. We will all see the end of our days and, if we’re lucky, we’ll live long enough to see our children, have children, and their children have children like my grandmother did. But as a teacher, that understanding is a bit more difficult to comprehend. Students aren’t supposed to die. They’re supposed to stay around long enough to get on your nerves; long enough to realize you were right all along; long enough to come back after they’ve left because they want you to share in their successes and perhaps glean some advice about their failures; long enough to give them one more hug, one more word of encouragement, one more smile. But life, as it often does, teaches you a lesson or two.

So, what did I do on my summer vacation?

  • I was reminded that tomorrow is not promised to any of us so I must make sure I laugh more, worry less, inhale deeply, exhale forcefully and embrace this thing called life.
  • I fully embraced my calling as a teacher. I know that may sound strange for someone in their 10th year of teaching (especially if you know me) but the deaths of my students made me understand that they, indeed all, are as much as a part of me as my hand or my foot. I am only who I am because of who they are to me.
  • I learned how to balance my despair with hope, my sorrow with joy, and my frustration with expectation. Although I lost some, there are those who are still waiting to see what they can learn from me, as I am waiting to see what I can learn from them.
  • I accepted the fact that death simply makes the love you have for those around you that much stronger and significant.

As we embark on yet another school year, I hope what I did on my summer vacation will inspire you to see your job, and your students, a little differently. You did not choose this profession. It chose you with all of its beautiful complexity.



4 thoughts on “What I Did On My Summer Vacation: A Lesson in Death and Dying

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