Memento Mori: Not just for Latin class anymore.

Time is a river, the resistless flow of all created things. One thing no sooner comes in sight than it is hurried past and another is borne along.

-Marcus Aurelius



Sometimes when we are fortunate, someone comes along and tells us the exact right thing at the exact right time. We may be enduring something that makes us feel isolated, carrying a burden all by ourselves, and that one person arrives with their perfect, prescient knowledge and compassion. Recent events in my classroom have made me reflect on one such perfect point in my life.


For me, it was my cousin Gary. He and his wife Ashley were about to depart for home after my father’s funeral. As Nicole and I exchanged our good-byes, he told me that there would be many days to come where grief would hit me at strange times, and I was better to let them overwhelm me. Indeed, I have found his words to be true, and often find this grief to be the sweet shadow of the love that existed in life, now transferred to the memories of my father.


This memory arose a month ago in the unnerving quiet of my classroom on a timed prompt day, and I’ve been grasping for the right words to nourish this seed germinating within me, struggling to strike the balance between the hope I intend and the limitations of reality that stand in its way, struggling for ways to push through morbidity—incongruous with the school year’s close—that this subject presents to the light of love I hope to expose.


The seed began its germination on a sleepy Friday afternoon. Me, classroom tyrant that I am, had scheduled another AP timed writing. On days like this, I try to be industrious: I work while they work; those essays won’t grade themselves. But like the students, my attention often wanders to frivolity: What am I doing this weekend? I wonder if the new Godzilla movie will be any good? On this day, however, something about the spring sunlight seeping through the slits in my dusty, broken blinds led my attention elsewhere to a deeper meditation.


My gaze fell on one of my students, one who had a parent die during the course of the school year. I remembered how a few months ago, she had missed school, and the best I could do when she returned was to tell her to take her time making up her work.


Then my attention lazily moved across the room, and I saw another student whose parent was slowly dying. He had missed some school but had bravely tried to be a good student and soldier through. Again, the best I could do was to tell him to not worry about his assignments as much.


One had lost a parent earlier in the year.  One knew he was going to lose one in the immediate future.  In both cases, these high achieving, college-bound students worked diligently to maintain their academic standing. And the best I could offer was to reassure them it was okay for them to be “off-task” for a while to grieve.


I sat and watched them scribble away. I doubted they had ever talked to each other about it, though I felt that being teenagers with grief, they could probably related to each other in a unique way. I wondered what would happen if I just stopped them right there, pulled them both aside, and sent them out in the quad to discuss how they were doing, to discuss their experience and process their grief in common. I’m sure it would be a much more edifying experience than one more timed prompt before the AP test.


Of course, they would never do this, and I would probably be considered derelict for encouraging it.  In so many ways, schools work to instill a “Keep Calm and Carry On” attitude.  Even as a teacher, I find myself in a quandary.  Telling a kid that it’s okay if his work’s a bit late because his father died seems cold, functional, and perfunctory, but doing more–opening the human connection–almost seems like an invasion of privacy, especially when that kid is working so hard to keep his shit together so that he can still do well in my class.  Indeed, I only know of these students because their parents contact their counselors, who then contact me.  This says nothing of the students whose family members have died and I only discover it through word of mouth or confessional writing months later.


No, school is a place where we implicitly encourage students to push through, to keep a stiff upper lip, and never let anyone know what trouble lies beneath our social masks.  There is good reason for this, of course.  Teachers learn quickly to deflect all sob stories that are excuses for late homework, missed classes, and poor behavior.  “Your (boss/professor/generic future authority figure) won’t put up with that, and neither will I.” is a version of the refrain, as we must train students for life in the “real world,” where no one really gives a shit about your excuses.


Terrence McKenna once wrote that the birth of the existential man—characterized by isolation, guilt, and anxiety—was the logical outcome of our emphasis on rational individualism and the cost of neglecting our common humanity and connections to the natural world. In school, we are taught that all obstacles can be surmounted by enough effort. Indeed, it is often the function of school in modern liberal democracy to give the students this very opportunity.


But when this natural grief is just another obstacle to be suffered in isolation, the students successful at the school game learn to push through.  They must, after all.  For all our lip-service for collaborative education, success in school is ultimately an extremely individualistic determination.  We tell them from an early age that they can be “anything they want if they just work hard enough in school.”  The hidden part, of course, is ultimately that burden is theirs to bear alone.  And that means you can’t really let a silly little thing like the death of a loved one get in the way of success.

Vanitas by Philippe de Champaigne, 1671.The memento mori is a motif seen in art an literature through thousands of years that reminds us that despite our best efforts, we all return to dust. (Here’s where the morbidity fear comes in; don’t worry—it actually lightens up to the end.) When my students study this phrase in class, no one knows what it is, unless they’ve studied Latin, and even then they can get the words but miss the meaning. It’s no surprise really: our school’s have become a place where we infect our children with the sometimes unspoken but ever present fear that if they don’t take school seriously enough, their life is going to be miserable. The famous stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Tao te Ching, and the book of Ecclesiastes (among many others), would all like to remind you that when you keep in perspective your ultimate mortality and small impact in the grand scale of the universe, such worries are dilatory to any true knowledge or understanding of the universe or what we actually need. But memento mori is just a phrase for Latin class; meditations on mortality are not given space in our modern curriculum. (Unless you have a really cool philosophy teacher, of course.)


In this, I imagine a student struggling with both the grief that is natural to the death of a loved one and the anxiety to moved past that grief, lest the demands of school, life, their career path, the golden ladder to success, pass them by, leaving them destined to a third-tier college that will never let them actualize their dreams.  And so, we learn to compartmentalize our grief, putting it aside for the person we feel we need to be, all the while ignoring this natural human state. We perpetuate our ignorance of the memento mori at our own peril, ignoring not only our own needs, but also the amazing opportunity we have to share the wisdom of our own experience to someone who might need a little help when they stumble along the path.




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