Art Imitating Life: When TV Really Nails It

By Eddo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Eddo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I want to preface this by saying that I have never before seen an episode of Glee. While I understand that lots of people love it and that’s cool, it’s just not really my cup of tea.

That being said, it was hard to miss all of the buzz last week when the promo spot for  “The Quarterback” episode was released online. This episode was to be the tribute to Cory Monteith’s character, Finn Hudson. Monteith, as you’re probably aware, died of an accidental overdose this past July. Though I’d never seen a single episode of the show, I watched the promo because I (strangely) gravitate toward tragedy for some reason. Immediately, something felt very familiar to me, and I knew that I’d finally have to watch an episode.

I just finished watching it. And it was brutal. So brutal that, instead of getting caught up on other shows as planned, I’m here, at 2:15 a.m. on a Saturday night/Sunday morning, writing it out.

I remember sitting in homeroom in 8th grade and having the teacher read us a form letter telling us that another student had died. He was a year ahead of me. He committed suicide. I didn’t know him, but I was really shaken up about it because I was in 8th grade. I’d just dealt with my grandmother dying a few months before, but this was different. This was closer to home in terms of age. And it stirred up the emotions that I was still processing from losing my grandma (the first person close to me to die).

That didn’t prepare me for what it would be like when I was teaching.

Fortunately, I never lost anyone I was close to in high school. A few years after graduation, a few of my classmates died, but I wasn’t close to them. My primary observations of teenagers grieving all came from my sister. She lost a friend to an unfortunate gun accident. She lost a friend to cancer. And, two weeks before their high school graduation, she lost one of her very best friends very suddenly to an unknown (at the time) health complication.

And that still didn’t prepare me for what it would be like when I was teaching.

A few days after my second year of teaching ended, one of my students from my first year was killed in a car accident that also took his best friend’s life. This was a student who would mess with you just to get under your skin, but in a good-natured way. Then he’d smile at you with this big smile and you would have to just smile back and shake your head. He came back to visit me periodically during my second year.

I wasn’t prepared for the visitation and wake. A teacher friend and I attended it together. We weren’t even through the parking lot before students were approaching us, their eyes swollen, hugging us, holding on, sobbing, thanking us for being there, for letting them cry, for providing whatever support we were able to offer.

It is difficult to see someone you associate with such vibrancy lying in a coffin, pale, unmoving. I couldn’t go right up to him. I didn’t want to remember him like that. So I focused on being there and being strong for any student who needed me.

And when I got home, I lost it.

photo credit: paul bica via photopin cc

photo credit: paul bica via photopin cc

A year later, shortly after I had moved back to PA, and right before school was starting, I got a call from my friend letting me know that another student had died — one with whom I’d been pretty close. I’d taught him for two years in a row (my first and second) and he was one of my greatest frustrations — brilliant kid who was just so lazy that he wouldn’t try. I’d get mad and tell him to get up and teach the class, hoping to teach him a lesson. And every time, he foiled my plans by being able to get up and explain everything perfectly. We had some good talks, though, and he knew I liked him, even if we drove each other crazy. As a Dallas Cowboys fan, he would constantly harass me about my fondness for the Philadelphia Eagles. The last memory I have of him is running into him in the hall and him giving me a huge hug and telling me thank you and that he was sorry for tormenting me for two years.

I grieved privately this time.

The next 18 months provided me little relief from grieving teenagers. I was back home teaching for a year at my old high school and things were calm until the spring. In April, a student who was about 5 weeks away from graduating was murdered in cold blood during a robbery while working at his after-school job at Subway. A few weeks later, another student hanged herself. A few months later, over the summer, another student hanged himself. The following school year, when I was just working as a daily sub, a third student hanged himself… the day before his 18th birthday.

In each of these cases (because as fate would have it, I ended up subbing the day after the only one of these events that didn’t happen while I was teaching full time), I had to read a form letter to the students. It was impersonal and cold and I didn’t like it. “Your classmate _____ died last night. Grief counseling will be available.”

Watching students process a murder followed by 3 suicides was tough.

Oh, but we weren’t done yet.

I’d given up teaching. I was done. But you’re never really finished teaching.

Last summer (2012), I was on vacation with some friends from my first teaching job in Virginia. On our first day at the beach, we get a call from another friend letting us know that a student we had all taught — and loved — had died in car accident the night before. I taught this student my first year. During my second and third years (I taught there only for 3 years), he would come sit in my room during my planning period (which coincided with his study halls) and talk to me about life while we worked. He was one of the students in my room after school on that last day, helping me to pack everything up and telling me how he’d miss visiting with me.

I was gutted. Of the students I’ve lost, I was closest to him. We’d missed the funeral. We bought some flowers, went to the graveyard and walked around until we found his grave. There was a very tiny marker. The earth was still fresh. Straw covered the grave. It was such a sobering moment, and I’m getting choked up right now just thinking about it. I still can’t believe he’s gone.

In the following weeks, former students reached out to me online to talk about it. I wasn’t teaching anymore, but I was still (happy to be) providing that support.

Cory Monteith’s death was an accident — as were many of these. It was also related to drugs — one of these suicides was. But watching that episode of Glee was hard because it took me right back there. Watching those actors-as-students grieve took me back to watching my students grieve. And even more so because their grief was real. They weren’t acting. They were mourning the loss of one of their own.

I felt that I could best empathize with the character of Mr. Schue*. Throughout the episode, I observed how he kept it together for the students. He made himself available. He did what he had to do to stay strong.

But when he got home and he was by himself, he lost it.

TV shows are often criticized for how unrealistic they are. How did the kids from Saved by the Bell all live together in an adjoined, palatial suite their freshman year of college? Why is it that Sheldon and Leonard have to live together to afford rent, but Penny seems to be making it (albeit with a one bedroom) on a single waitress salary? Why was Joey Potter’s dorm room the size of my entire apartment?

But this one… this one got it. It got it perfectly.

*Thank you to Elisse for giving me a crash course on Glee!

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