One of our writing buddies, Niki, recently wrote in a comment that she “often felt like an iceberg—most of myself staying hidden from view.” I was struck by this, not because it parallels my own loneliness issues, but because it reminded me of how I felt as a high school teacher as, day after day, I looked out over my ocean of students.
I got into teaching high school primarily because I wanted to be a caring presence in the lives of teens knowing that it was a tumultuous time of life and that, at least occasionally, I might be able to be of some help.
Over 36 years, I was confronted with almost every kind of crisis—the loss of a loved one, an abusive home, a young man preparing to come out to his friends, a student discovering that her life was about to be repossessed by financial reversals about which she had known nothing.
Every one of these encounters made me acutely aware of how many other of my students must be out there, icebergs who floated by me daily, taking my quizzes, turning in papers, joking with friends, but suffering in silence.
Coincidentally, as the end of the year approached, all of my 12th graders knew that they were expected to deliver a 3-minute speech to their peers as part of a culminating activity. They had several options for a topic, but most of them chose to reflect on a personal observation, and sometimes those speeches were incredibly revealing, leading me to wonder if this activity was badly timed, since I often learned critical information about them during the last two days of school, information that would have made me a better teacher to them had I known it all semester.
I’ll write more about the speeches later, but one quiet student’s speech has always haunted me. He delivered it on the very last period of the very last day of school. He had struggled all year to maintain a passing grade. It was killing me because whenever he turned in an assignment, especially any writing assignment, it was clear that he was beyond capable. I’d pull him aside and show him how little he had to do to bring up his grade to a safe level so that graduation would be guaranteed. I regularly warned, pleaded, and cajoled him to put out just a little more effort.
In the end, it came down to his speech. If he got up and did it, he’d graduate. If not, he’d fail. When his turn came, he took his place at the podium and began. It might have been the first time he had actually had spoken up in a class activity.
Once he began to describe the year he and his father had spent coping with his mother’s terminal illness, the class lapsed into an unnatural silence. I no longer remember the particular illness, but the symptoms and complications sounded very similar to ALS or multiple sclerosis—something that was slow, degenerative, and ultimately, deadly.
And then, with great composure, he told us that this particular disease was genetic and that he had a 50% chance of having inherited it. He told us there was a test that would tell him definitively if he had the disease, if he had the condition that would ultimately lead to the painful deterioration that he had spent the past year watching in his mother. He told us that he had been struggling all year with the decision of whether to have the test or not. He told us that he had not yet made up his mind, and then he sat down.
He passed the class.
Somehow I got through the rest of the period, wished them all well, and sent them on their way to graduation and beyond.
Then I sat down and thought, “Well, fuck me.” How much more supportive a force could I have been for this kid if I had had any idea what he was going through? Of course, little assignments in Senior English seemed meaningless to him. Of course, he was getting by on minimum effort. Why in the world did he decide to tell us all on the last day of school?
I don’t have a savior complex. Even if I had known, I know I couldn’t have made his year that much easier. He was just one more iceberg that got past me.
3 thoughts on “Watching Icebergs Go By”
Sounds very possible he was talking about Huntington’s Disease, a disorder of which I only recently learned through a short film called The Lion’s Mouth Opens. HBO has been airing it lately so keep an eye out… Definitely sounds devastating.
Poignant story to be sure and transparently rendered, as you consistently do so well. Without in any sense diminishing this student’s suffering, this story evokes not only only what you conclude with..how many icebergs get by one but two other concerns for me. One you allude to in your opening, viz., the icebergs in ourselves. Secondly, when we are confronted with another’s suffering and mortality, how rarely it seems one takes it to heart, earnestly as an occasion for recognizing that we never know when our time is up, and resolve to use the gift of the time we do have to practice self-inquiry and serve the good — not as abstract, but as concrete and real. I might also add, that I can only imagine that he could not have had a better teacher, to just stand by him, and he would not have delivered this incredible story, unless, unknowingly to you, you had given him the space and safety to disclose his life the way he did.
Once again, Tom,
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