I walked into my 12:30 class yesterday and found a former student sitting there, in the dark, with one of my current students. “Hi!” I exclaimed in a lively manner. “It’s so great to see you! What are you doing here? Did you just want to sit in on class today?” She smiled and said she was happy to see me too, but her eyes looked sad. I looked over to the student who was actually enrolled in this class and asked how she was; in a tiny voice, she replied, “GM isn’t coming. She died.” Thinking I’d misheard her — that one of GM’s family members had passed, probably a grandparent, I said, “I don’t think I got that — someone in GM’s family died?” “No,” she said, now starting to cry. “GM died.”
I sat down. When you hear something so shocking, your first reaction is to just not believe it because it seems so impossible. I asked how. She was hit by a car. Walking home from school. To be more precise, walking home from my class. I started crying. I asked when the funeral was so I could go; they said that her family had already held it, less than twenty-four hours after her death. I asked if they could get her parent’s address for me. They said they would try.
More students filtered in, and as time for class came, I told them that we wouldn’t have class today; that if anyone wanted to share something about GM, they could. That if they wanted to go, that was okay. That if they wanted to stay in class and just be together, that was okay. That feeling and expressing sorrow and grief was okay. I told them the things that I thought were wonderful about GM, and there were a lot of them. She was not only the brightest student in the class, but would be the first to volunteer to help anyone with anything without being asked. She radiated grace, confidence, and joy. She was an effervescent young woman who held everyone’s attention and gave her attention fully. She was absolutely charming. She was twenty-two years old.
We sat in silence and cried together for a long time; no one said a word. After class, some of the students came to my office to talk about GM; they were pretty shaken up. They cross the street several times a day, eyes glued to their phones, ear buds plugged in, completely unaware of their surroundings. Traffic laws are pretty much the same in Korea as they are in the US and Canada, but go largely unenforced and unpenalized. They told me that after exams, we could all go visit her grave together.
When I got home from school, I immediately emailed former students whom I still keep in touch with just to tell them that I love them and to be careful. Since I’m a teacher, I’m giving you all an assignment: Right now, tell someone who’s important to you that (s)he is important to you. Like, right now. Don’t wait. I know this seems cheesy and like something you’d read in an email forwarded to you by your aunt who only sends you forwards, but do it anyway.