I avoid writing too much about the dramatics of my job, because I am fiercely protective of my students and their families. Often there are stories I want to tell, but I don't, because to dishonor them would be to fail in a way I refuse to fail.
Some of the stories are really, really hard. And complicated. Even when I think I have the whole story, I usually don't. With every issue and incident, there are layers of things that happened to lead to what happened.
When enough time has passed, though, I feel okay telling certain stories. And with careful adjustment of names and details, I can be sure I am not hurting anyone.
Several years ago, we had a young student I'll call Janel. She was a lovely girl, nine or ten years old, pretty as a movie star. She was hugely personable and a natural leader. Her teacher often sent her to the office on small errands. When she arrived, the air lightened and sweetened somehow. She would grin and wave impishly when she saw me, as if she was so very happy that we knew one another.
From our light conversations, I knew Janel lived with her mother in an apartment a few miles away, across the highway. I had never met her mother; Janel rode the bus to and from school, and her mother did not come in for school events or conferences. Janel seemed happy and well-adjusted. I adored her.
Midway through the year, on a nondescript winter morning, Janel's teacher caught me in the hallway. "I'm worried about Janel," she lowered her voice to a whisper. "She looks exhausted, and she seems reserved and quiet. She's not herself. Will you come see what you think?"
I went in the room and poked around, saying hello to a few kids, squatting to ask questions and ask about their reading. My eyes flicked to Janel. Sure enough, something was off. Her eyes didn't look up; she sat quietly in the corner, reading. Except she was not reading at all: Her eyes were still, staring, not moving, not even blinking, it seemed.
I asked her to come with me. We walked toward my office. "Hey, sweetie.... Is everything alright?"
Yes, she said.
"Do you feel okay?"
"Did something happen this morning, or last night?"
I passed the guidance counselor's office and gave her a twist of my head; she joined us in my office. I sat next to Janel, and the counselor pulled up a chair so we were all in a little triangle.
"So, nothing is bothering you?" I asked.
She shook her head.
The counselor reached over and touched her knee. "Janel?"
And she started to cry. And cry and cry and cry and cry.
It was a good long time before her drippy little eyes met mine. Her chest lifted with a huge intake of breath.
"I don't know where my mom is," she said.
My shoulders clenched.
"Tell me what you mean," I said.
Janel had gotten off the bus the night before, and her mother wasn't home. She didn't worry much at first: "My mom gets busy with her friends," she said. "If they go out for drinks, or something like that. But usually they all come back to the apartment. At least by the time it is really dark." Janel couldn't think of anything to do other than wait. Which is what she did, all through the night. And then morning came, and Janel couldn't think of anything to do other than change her clothes from the day before and get on the bus for another day at school.
I asked questions, and the answer was consistently "no." No, she didn't know where her mother could be. No, there were no relatives we could call. No, she hadn't eaten. No, she hadn't slept. She'd tried to draw and write in her journal, but time had passed slowly: "The night was, like, a whole week," she said.
The guidance counselor took Janel across the street to get a bagel and some juice. I made some phone calls. A police officer and I went to the apartment and banged on the door, and in that stopped moment of time, I couldn't decide what I wanted more: for the mother to answer the door, or for no one to be home.
No one was home.
It was a horribly long day. I cleared my calendar so we could work through emergency placement--a place where Janel could stay until we figured out where her mother was.
"Let me take her," I pleaded with a caseworker at Children's Services.
She shook her head. "It doesn't work that way."
"But I'm her principal," I protested, sounding feeble and desperate.
"It doesn't matter. You're not licensed or trained." She was gentle but firm. She walked to her Camry. Janel followed, clutching the straps of her pink backpack across her chest. And they drove away.
Hours later, police found Janel's mother wandering the Hilltop area. Her relationship with heroin had gone sour; it was remarkable she was still alive. By the time she sobered up and realized she'd lost 36 hours and, likely, her daughter, too much damage had been done. She sunk into despondency and, apparently, more heroin.
Janel was withdrawn from our school to attend in the district where her foster family lived. And that's when the story ended for me; I never saw her again.
To be clear: In my work, there are far more stories of joy and celebration than there are of grief, addiction, hate, pain, and absence. Far, far more. But that's the shitty thing about this memory we have: The happinesses get put into one category, big and wide and full, but the uglies each get their own category. Each one stands alone, and lurks, and lingers.