Ahhh, young love. Boy meets girl. Boy shares his gummy bears with girl at the lunchroom table. Love blossoms. All is right with the world—until the following week when girl falls in love with soccer team captain…. Your classic tale of middle school heartbreak. But this story isn’t about that typical, overly played-out scenario. This story is about the heartbreak I felt in my 16th and final year of teaching at a public school in Guilford County, North Carolina.
It was November and I was teaching 7th-grade science and language arts in a Title I school. Needless to say, most of my students proved to be a challenge on a daily basis. Combine that with my own crumbling marriage and you could say I was having a horrible year. Fortunately, I was teamed up with a fairly new, but fantastic teacher who is a sweetheart. Ms. Nelson taught the math and social studies next door. We were both trudging through some very difficult times together.
I don’t want to make it seem like all of my students were nightmares. I had some very sweet students mixed in the bunch. But overall, every day was an uphill climb.
One particular student stands out in my mind more than any that year. She was a quiet, timid, exceptionally bright young lady, and the kind of student you looked forward to seeing every day. For the sake of keeping her identity hidden, I will refer to her as ‘‘Bethany.’’ Bethany was about to break my heart. And I never even saw it coming.
I walked into homeroom one morning in late November. As usual, I was getting ready for the day ahead—log into my computer, check e-mails, put the morning work up on the whiteboard, deal with all the typical middle -schoolers’ issues….
I happened to glance up from my desk and caught sight of Bethany. She was crying and obviously quite distressed over something. Being the seasoned teacher that I was, I figured this would be just another petty 7th-grade girl problem that I could easily handle on my own. I would have Bethany smiling and happy again in no time.
I casually walked over to her table and crouched down beside her seat. She was sobbing. As gently as I could, I asked her what was going on and if there was anything I could do to help. Again, I was fully expecting something like a recent breakup with a boy, or perhaps someone had said something about her on social media. But not this time. In a soft trembling voice between sobs, Bethany told me that something had happened at home that involved her mom’s boyfriend. Immediately, I knew I was in uncharted and dangerous waters. That wasn’t the answer I was anticipating, and my mind immediately began to race. What did that monster do to this sweet young girl? I knew I had to remove myself from the situation and get someone else. I walked over to my teammate’s room and quickly filled her in. I felt it was better that Ms. Nelson, a young woman in her 20s, handle the situation. Ms. Nelson made her way to my room and began talking to Bethany. After a short time, Ms. Nelson escorted the still visibly upset student down to the office. It would be one of the last times I would ever see Bethany.
The next day, there was an empty seat where Bethany should have been sitting. And again, the next day, and the next, and the next. Bethany was gone and it was clear she wasn’t returning. Ms. Nelson and I, concerned about Bethany and her well being, tried to pry any information we could from the school social worker. But because of privacy laws and the situation, we were given very little to go on. Christmas was quickly approaching. One of my finest students was gone and I needed to know where she was.
Finally, a few days before Christmas break, Ms. Nelson and I were given some news and a glimmer of hope. Bethany was living in a group home in a neighboring county. We could at least breathe a small sigh of relief that she wasn’t in danger. But, as someone who was abused and adopted, I knew that being in a group home, especially right around Christmas, was a less-than-ideal situation. In fact, it was still horrible.
After school one day, I approached Ms. Nelson and suggested that we get a bunch of gifts together for Bethany. Come Hell or high water, I was going to deliver them to her before Christmas. Ms. Nelson agreed to do the shopping and I would pay her back (having never had to shop for girls, I wouldn’t have known what to get).
On the final day of school before Christmas break, Ms. Nelson showed up with bags of goodies for a young adolescent girl. I asked Ms. Nelson if she would like to accompany me to deliver the gifts in the next few days, but she declined, due to having a young girl of her own at home to care for. I was on my own.
The following day, I set off with bags of gifts for the children’s home. It was about a 45-minute drive. I knew that I wouldn’t be allowed to see Bethany, but at least I could drop off the gifts with whoever was in charge at the home. I pulled into the parking lot and gathered up the bags. I made my way up the neatly kept path to the front door and knocked on it. Moments later, a middle- aged man cracked open the door just enough that I could see his face. I explained to him who I was and the purpose of my visit. At first, the man didn’t seem very pleased that I had shown up unannounced at the group home. But upon seeing the gifts in my hand and trusting that I was indeed a teacher to one of the young ladies there, he began to loosen up a bit. In the background behind him, I could hear the voices of teenagers. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, I heard someone from behind him exclaim, “Is that Mr. Desmond!?!?” As much as he may have wanted to keep her back, there was no stopping her. Bethany pushed past him, burst through the doorway and threw her arms around my neck. We both stood there in an embrace with tears streaming down our faces, as she kept sobbing and saying over and over, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you came to see me.” It was truly one of the greatest, and at the same time, one of the most heart-wrenching, bittersweet moments in all my years as a teacher.
Sensing that this meeting, which never really should have occurred, needed to end, I made sure that Bethany was okay. I handed her the gifts, gave her a final hug, and walked back to my car an emotional wreck.
That was the final time I ever saw Bethany. Four months later, I left teaching and began a new chapter in my life. My hope years later is that the chapters for Bethany, the 7th-grader who broke my heart, have been good for her and that she has found peace and happiness.