One of my students killed himself this year. He was 20 years old.
A friend of his came by my office to tell me the news. The fall semester had just begun. I was shuffling papers, getting my desk in order, and trying to get used to being in a busy building after months of summer quiet. She walked in, sat down, and blurted out words I was not prepared to hear: “Prof, there is something I think you should know . . .”
I still had papers in my hand. I was not sure what to do with them.
I had spent hours with Patrick over the years. Hours in the classroom and in my office, talking with him while he sat in the very same chair she was sitting in as she related the events. He had come by my office just before he graduated. How could this be? He had wanted to be a teacher, or maybe a social worker. He had plans.
Patrick hanged himself, although he did not die right away. I visited him in the hospital a few days later. He was on life support, but there was not much left of him. I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder, but I hesitated. My academic training had not prepared me for this moment. No one had ever pulled me aside in graduate school to tell me that among my responsibilities as a professor would be visiting students on their deathbeds. I remember standing there, looking at his poor broken body attached to machines, wanting to put my hand on him, to let him know that I was there. But it had been drilled into me for years that one never touches a student. I suddenly realized that in all the time I had spent with Patrick, I had never touched him. How strange it seemed that the first time I would touch him would be then.
I realized something else in that moment: graduate school had never prepared me to love my students either. The legislative environment we have built around modern education has made the relationship between teachers and students devastatingly unnatural; stiff and frightened. As faculty members, we are afraid of making mistakes with them, of saying the wrong thing, of being accused of something perverse. So we keep our distance to protect ourselves. Even though we are told that we do so to protect them.
I understand the logic, but when I found myself standing beside my student’s hospital bed, I could not help but feel disturbed by the fact that I did not know how to touch him. In that moment, it seemed to me that our legislation had not succeeded in protecting anyone.
A few months have passed since Patrick died. I went to his funeral and offered my condolences to his family. I spent time with his friends and talked with them whenever they needed an ear. With time, new students appeared at my door. Waves of panic would wash over me as I listened to their anxieties and sadnesses. I wondered whether I would also find myself at their funerals one day. The question seemed inevitable for a while.
I tried to keep my distance, because loving students had proved to be too painful. But, eventually, my heart melted. Their young faces and eager concerns made detachment an impossible enterprise. They are so young. Younger than they seemed to me 15 years ago when I first adopted this role in their lives. Young in the way that Patrick was. They don’t always realize that suffering comes and goes, that most of their hurdles are transient, and that patience will solve most of their problems, if only they can find it within themselves to wait. I listen and try to encourage them, but I no longer work under the illusion that I can save them. Now I know that the only way life will work is if they learn how to save themselves. And my heart breaks just a little bit because I know that some of them might never learn.
Graduate school didn’t prepare me for any of this. I never took a course on how to be a teacher. I was trained for research, but I never learned how to engage in these relationships, and I never could have predicted how fragile and precious these relationships would be. And yet, didn’t I lean on my own teachers when I was a student?
Nevertheless, I was not prepared. I never expected to wipe a student’s brow as he wrestled with death in a hospital room. I never anticipated meeting his mother and seeing the anguish of the loss of her son in her face. This was not what I expected teaching would be.
But it is.
Being a professor is not just about books. It is also actually about teaching. And teaching involves relating. And relating requires love—an equation I never anticipated, but one that I now see with clarity.
In Buddhism, love is not about personal attachment. It is about undifferentiated compassion. It is a commitment to see the other and not just to see ourselves. A teacher has to see her students, otherwise we are merely talking heads. If we are to have any impact, we must talk to our students and be present with them, and so we must be able to see them. And to see them is to love them. I wish someone could have pulled me aside in graduate school to tell me that. To let me know that it would happen and that it would be ok. But, as with my students, perhaps this was something I had to learn on my own.
I won’t forget Patrick. He taught me how important it is to love my students. Or, perhaps, he taught me to recognize that I did love my students already. And he also taught me that I have to let my students go.
I would like to thank Patrick’s mother and grandmother for their encouragement and support in publishing this article. Thank you both.