In May 2008, the week before Memorial Day, I was coasting towards the finish line. I had successfully prepared my 9th grade students for the World History end of course test. Summer was in sight. My kids had already taken their Standards of Learning (short for SOL test…yes, for real) and I was looking forward to projects that allowed my students to create awesome products and explore areas of history that interested them the most. Some kids created castles, others practiced monologues that focused on Roman emperors.
Then, it happened.
My phone rang while I was eating dinner with friend. I had a premonition that I needed to answer. What I learned was one of my 9th graders had died in a car crash. She wasn’t wearing her seat belt. She was in her best friend, Stephanie’s car, headed to the movies. Her boyfriend was in the backseat. He survived. Taylor died. So did her best friend, Stephanie.
Taylor was one of those students that you relished having in class. She was silly. She was funny. She lifted up her classmates in a way that made them smile from the inside. Even when her lips weren’t smiling, her blue eyes were. Slightly mischievous. A perfect mix of inquiry and wisdom beyond her years…
As teachers, we aren’t supposed to have favorites. But as a former teacher, I know that’s crap. We are human. Some humans (like Taylor and the kids in my 1st block class), we connect with immediately. As their first block teacher, I saw them prior to school starting. Chatting. Flirting. Talking about life.
On the way to school, the day after Memorial weekend I cried. And cried. And cried. I cried for the empty desk that would be in my 1st block class. I cried for Taylor’s family. I cried because my 15 year old student could have been saved if she would have simply worn her seat belt.
I cried all the way to work. Uncontrollably. Then I called my mom. She told me to be strong and not shed tears in front of the kids. But I didn’t listen. As each student filed in my class and took their seat, I greeted them with a hug (if they wanted one) and my condolences. We didn’t do “work” that day. We talked about Taylor. We created a memorial display to hang outside our classroom.
What I learned about teaching that day certainly wasn’t a part of my teacher prep program.
Typically, I am not overtly emotional but that day, anticipating and seeing Taylor’s empty seat, I let my guard down. I showed my kids that it’s okay to grieve. It’s okay to grieve the loss of a student and/or fellow classmate. I also learned it was OK to cry and even more than OK to show that I, too, was human.
In the aftermath of Taylor’s tragic accident, our school Technology Department designed bumper stickers to sell. We mass produced them and sold the stickers for $5 each. We earned over $1000 to go towards the Junior Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). We choose that charity because Taylor’s best friend, Stephanie, was diabetic and they both were active in raising funds for those with juvenile diabetes.
Since then, Taylor’s parents have created a scholarship fund to honor their daughter’s memory. As a teacher, I tried to impress the importance of wearing seat belts on my students. My class held a seat belt pledge for our entire high school.
I truly struggled with how to sufficiently honor Taylor’s life. I think of her often. I still keep in touch with her parents, Greg and Tammy. Taylor’s good friend, Cristen, actually designed my site logo and header. Isn’t it amazing?! Regardless, Taylor will forever be a part of my heart.
Rest in peace, sweet Taylor Marie. I know you are singing, dancing, laughing, and whispering in the ears of your loved ones to buckle up….for family, for friends, for love, for life.