The Empty Seat

She was thirteen and it all happened so suddenly. I remember one Monday morning staggering — still blue and bleary-eyed — into my urban comp., frantically scanning the notice-board for bits of information vaguely relevant to my professional survival or vaguely in the interest of my tutees.

And there it was . . . like a solitary cabbage flourishing amid weeds in the grounds of a deserted house . . . there, superimposed on a special offer to teachers of cut-price cassettes, a union announcement of impending action, a reminder about fire-drill procedures and the duty-list for the day . . . there, in the middle of life, were simple words in blue-black ink penned on a single sheet of unlined paper: there had been a road accident on Friday afternoon; she hadn’t regained consciousness; she was unlikely to survive; the family would be in touch; it wasn’t the driver’s fault; some of the pupils knew.

There was something terribly real and normal about that dramatic lack of drama, treating it like an ordinary fact of everyday life, another one of those pastoral open secrets which supposedly sensitize teachers to their pupils; like who suffers from constipation and whose Dad has just left home. Of course, we’re not to let on that we know about the accident: we’re just to know and to take it into account. I’ve often doubted the wisdom of that subtle, all-pervasive kind of communal care.

By the following morning, the single sheet of unlined paper had disappeared, replaced by another with more final words in the same blue-black hand. The news was to be broken to pupils by their tutors and a formal announcement would be made in assembly later in the week. I envisaged an army of apostles carrying a common message to far corners from a central source. There were undoubtedly senior staff who felt that communicating such knowledge would not be conducive to the quiet, reflective mood one wanted to cultivate for a daily act of collective worship; that, at worst, it might induce some form of mass hysteria or corporate gasping; and was, at the very least, in poor taste. I acknowledge the incongruity and the vulgarity of an obituary notice sandwiched between the sports results and the room changes, but I questioned the motive: who was protecting whom, I wondered. For all our qualifications and years of service, we remain human beings and our humanity emerges at the death of youth as at no other time. Now was the moment given to face it, to embrace it — not to run away . . . Everyone needs an escape hatch but an escape can imprison you if it steals your chance to release your feelings and encounter yourself.

I had anticipated that it would not mean a great deal to my group: they were two or three years her senior and, as far as I was aware, none of them knew her personally. But perhaps the death of another human being suggested their own mortality . . . no matter how impersonal the school community, perhaps the loss of one of its members makes other members feel smaller . . . perhaps they identified: at other times a 13-year-old would be a mere bopper but now their vulnerability was stirred . . . or perhaps they had caught something of my mood and were sharing wordlessly in my inarticulate grief. At any rate they were noticeably moved and, for the most part, distressed and disturbed. They were certainly very nice to each other, petty differences disappeared and a spirit of harmony reigned in the room — as though part of showing respect for the dead; a cruel death demands kindness from us all. In the days that followed there was to be a great deal of searching behaviour — some aimless wandering, fidgeting and rooting around but also the profound and probing questions.

Burying behaviour was displayed at morning break. A timid, self-effacing knock at the staff-room door revealed some of her closest friends bearing armfuls of her books and files. They thought they should clean out her locker and dispose of her belongings. “Good heavens! Whatever’s the matter with you? Some of us in here are very upset. She only died yesterday . . .“ The door was closed. Some adults are very frightened and frightening.

I was glad that a moment presented itself later in the day to give her something of a decent burial: I was also conscious of having to inter my own anger at the insensitivity and inadequacy of a colleague. They were right — she was a ‘horrible old cow’ — and I hated myself for trying to explain and justify her attitude: “people sometimes mourn in very funny ways . . .“ It was much, much later that I was forced to recognise my anger at death itself that takes from us our little, lovely ones and leaves us with horrible old cows. There was a great deal to be done . . . some of the books had the school name stamped on them and they could be checked off and returned to stock. They were easy; but there were things that belonged only half to her, like exercise books and gym kit: it was decided that these should be offered to her family. Discussion followed as to how they should reach them. No, not just through the post . . . and her parents shouldn’t have to come and collect them . No. They had to be accompanied: two girls were chosen to take those things to her house and to bear the family some token of their sympathy. That way they would be able to say how sorry they were and how much they missed her. Then there were strange little bits that were of no cultural or commercial value and weren’t even particularly reminiscent of her . . . a pencil that needed sharpening, half a packet of sweets, a bus ticket . . . Agreement was reached that they could not simply be thrown away; they weren’t rubbish; they must be shared and I was awarded a pencil for her memory. It was a very close time and I have often reflected that of all the situations that bond teachers and pupils bereavement is the one that most resembles glue.

It was not till the next day that her class and I had a lesson together and the room was filled with an empty seat; not that there are serried ranks and allocated places but there was definitely one chair too many. I spoke to them of this and also of the hole in my heart. I no longer cared for propriety and upper lips, stiff or otherwise. We write too much about caring community and the kingdom of God on earth and we usher them in too little. People must be; and other people must be in letting them be; if the captain of the football team wants to break down and cry, then he must; and if the Vicar’s daughter wants to say that she rejects God, then she must. And we must stand there. And when he says he feels better now and he’s got over it and when she says she’s different now and she really believes, we must stand there, too. And if my voice breaks as I speak to them and if I take on a watery look, so be it; I could certainly not adopt a business as usual approach with openers like “Last time, we were looking at . . . reading about discussing . . .“ Ironically, ‘last time’ was a Friday afternoon and we’d all been together as we chorused “Have a good weekend!” Several wondered whether she had known; she had seemed especially happy that afternoon. I confessed that I hadn’t noticed at the time but then I am pretty obtuse; now that they mention it, yes, there was a certain serenity and a special kind of radiance. We were grateful for that. If I were a good R.E. teacher, I’d have really capitalised on that lesson. I could have got away with a lot of didactic stuff about funeral practices and beliefs about the afterlife in the major world faiths; I could have done some simplified philosophy of religion; I could have shown one of those meaningful filmstrips. The objective study of religion has its place and I’m one of its most ardent fans but it doesn’t belong here; now is not the time for ‘Christians believe . . . when a Hindu dies . . . if God is good, then why . . .‘ Openness is needed, yes, but no open-endedness. It was difficult for all of us especially those, like myself, who are mature enough to know that death is real but not mature enough to deal with its reality; and even more trying for teenagers, when most relationships are tenuous and constantly being tested. Some hadn’t really wanted to talk about it — it was too threatening — but then they hadn’t wanted to stop. I was very glad that we had already ‘done’ death together some weeks before and we were enriched by remembering what she had voiced then. That helped us to explore and express our thoughts and feelings now; you have to be strong to be weak; and if that isn’t religious and educational, I don’t know what is . . .

evitable, of course, that I would be involved — whether I wanted to be or not — in the school’s formal ceremony. It was a non-denominational institution and chaplaincy was not part of my job description: I was the neutral purveyor of humanity’s experience of the ultimate. Despite all that, R.E. teachers are the problem persons and on this occasion it became a department to deal with the dying. I had to come to terms with this role. It occurred to me that it matters not who the undertaker is as long as the dead are not left unburied. There was definitely a need for a ritual which could act as a focus for grief and which could counter the avoidance of most teachers. The Head had very firm views: it must not on any account be an emotional affair; there should be appropriate New Testament readings; perhaps some poetry — George Herbert had the right approach; it was to take place during a lunch hour so as not to disrupt normal school life; it should happen on the same day as the funeral as it wouldn’t be a good idea for pupils to go to both. I was to make it happen . . . but please, no eulogy I summoned the holy society of friends: they had very different ideas. That wouldn’t be about her. Her parents were atheists and she was definitely a don’t know: she’d hate New Testament readings and anyway who was George Herbert? Psalm 23 would be all right; she used to hum “Crimond” sometimes. Yes, the Ecclesiastes bit would have been her line and there was that lovely tune for it. And what abut the death prayer that doesn’t mention death; she had thought that was amazing. There had to be something funny or stupid — and why was no one to say something about her? They wanted to speak (actually they wanted to scream).

It wasn’t what you might call a satisfying experience: possibly it wasn’t meant to be; possibly it was unfair to hope that it might be. But it did happen — despite the compromises and the bowing to authority, and readings were read and songs were sung. The empty seat was still vacant and some of us remarked that there was nobody in it. . . no body. There had been no slick cliches and no glib responses but we had nevertheless been dirtied by death.

When I next needed a class list from the office, I noted that they had not been reprinted. Rather, her name had been merely crossed out in red: by a conclusive, bureaucratic stroke this pupil had been pronounced clinically off-roll. I grew up that day; I also aged. Every child on the road is her and I became an extremely careful driver. I think it’s called learning by discovery.

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