by Heather Carnaghan
I had the opportunity to share my “message as an educator” to an impressive panel of folks today. When I first learned that I would have this platform, I was stumped. What was my message anyway? I knew my beliefs as an educator. I believe in the power of inquiry to inspire lifelong learners. I believe that all students deserve a stellar education in a safe, engaging environment. I believe that teachers have the ability to instill confidence and purpose along with skills. But...my message? I wasn’t certain how to articulate that. How do I encapsulate all that I am and hope for when that changed so radically five months ago? I’m still taking baby steps in this new normal. My message was as jumbled as one of my three year old’s stories. I decided to let it marinate for a while.
Two days ago, I woke up at 3am, like I always do on an anniversary of her death. It was the five month mark after losing Charlotte and I realized that my message wasn’t complete without her in it. I wrote, erased, and cried, then wrote some more. As I poured out my augmented soul onto paper, a message began to float to the surface. I quickly printed it before I could change my mind and stuck it deep into my school bag. It crumpled as it wedged between a thick file of papers to grade and a to-do list that is so long that it has its own notebook.
At 11:35 this morning, I stood in front of the panel, fished out my ragged paper, and read.
I read how I teach a unique class that links curriculum across the subjects and that those connections matter. I read that my current class of eighth graders was particularly special to me because we have spent two whole years innovating together. They were eagerly counting down to Charlotte's appearance from the moment they first noticed my baby bump as seventh graders to her final weeks in October when we laughed at her kicks, clearly visible through my shirt. I read that we laughed together a lot, and those connections matter.
I paused, taking in a sharp breath and preparing myself for the next words on the page, then told them that my daughter was stillborn two weeks before her due date. My voice cracked as I continued. I told them that despite my experience and degrees and past, grief made me feel that I had nothing left to offer my school. I told the panel how my amazing school community offered me a new beginning in the form of handwritten notes and homemade meals. Coworkers donated their wedding dresses to the Wrapped in Love Project (which repurposes wedding dresses into burial gowns for stillborn babies) and a grief resources website called Charlotte’s Purpose, both of which I started in an effort to heal. My students wrote letters with powerful words like "I love you, Ms.C", and "You’ve greeted me at this door for two years and that made me happy for two years. Now let us make you happy for two minutes." Those connections matter.
My mouth was dry, but I went on. I told the story of a fifth grade aspiring writer who made me realize how important teachers can be in a child's life. Long after we shared a classroom, he invited me to his Eagle Scout Ceremony with thirty of the people he felt most cherished and inspired by. I was one of his thirty! Those connections matter.
The panel stared at me for a pregnant moment. Some let the hint of a smile or a subtle nod escape past their stoney exteriors. I sat up a little taller and swallowed down the anxiety that had made my mouth cottony and my voice waver. Charlotte taught me so many things in her short time with us, but the most important is that every connection we make is one that matters. Whether a family member, friend, student, fellow loss-mom, or stranger on the street, we all deserve kindness and opportunity. We all have the ability to be "one of the thirty" for someone else. I am so very lucky to have had a baby girl who made that message crystal clear to me.
"My Message" is published on the Anne Arundel County Public Schools' website through a project called "Faces of AACPS" You can read it here.
Heather is an educator, writer, artist, and most of all, mother of four. Her three boys inspire joy in her life and writing. Heather's eagerly awaited daughter was stillborn in October of 2017, which focused her creative energy on grief and healing. She created and maintains CharlottesPurpose.com, a website dedicated to dealing with grief positively.