Mary Sophie Filicetti

The first teacher workday falls on a humid, rather than crisp, August morning. After the staff breakfast, Lauren, Lead Vision Teacher, puts aside her own duties to help her mentee, who, at 23, is less than half her age. She pulls up Jennie’s caseload—her own former students—and runs her finger down the list. The last name stops her. She crosses it out wordlessly.

Any other reason for the deletion—a family move during the summer, a change of teacher—would be better than the reality: that Sammy, her second grader with the curly hair and mischievous grin, died last year.

Lauren pushes aside her weariness and the memories of students past to review new student backgrounds, medical needs, protocols for emergencies. Jennie, who arrived this morning armed with her new employee badge and a sum total of 16 weeks student teaching experience, listens politely but doesn’t ask a single question. Lauren tamps down irritation at the “I’ve got this” attitude. She didn’t ask questions either, her first year; until the day a preschooler’s unending seizure sent her running for the nurse’s aide she’d dismissed, and to her own mentor in the days following, when images of Caitlyn’s blue eyes, glazed and unresponsive, followed her everywhere.

They walk through the office together to meet Judi, the equipment manager. The hallways are barren, beige cinder-block walls, dreary without bulletin boards showcasing student artwork, without the sound of children talking or singing loudly.

Singing, like Sammy, reciting from a class performance, an earworm she now can’t shake: “So much of this story is scary you know, scary you know… so only brave people sit in the front row!” Lauren wakes most mornings with the ditty, now more of a dirge, echoing from her dreams.

Judi greets Jennie warmly, and issues her a parking pass, a mailbox, a laptop, tablets for students, and an assessment kit. Lauren helps load Jennie’s Prius, the pristine trunk revealed beneath temporary tags. Lauren’s own car, a thirteen-year-old relic she uses to transport students for mobility lessons, is packed full of the essentials: GPS, trunk organizer arranged with student tote bags, white canes, a box of tissues. Lauren carries a watch to keep her schedule, and also to record seizures. Like last year, when Sammy’s, long dormant, recurred.

As she steps in the building, Judi calls her back, an updated spreadsheet lying on her desk. Lauren’s stomach drops. She hasn’t informed the team, an awful omission. Both Jennie and Judi need to know, so they won’t contact his family and upset them anew, like she herself did in June after his absence.

“Were you planning to tell me about Sammy?” Judi asks.

“Another seizure,” Lauren says. “In the county pool.” Then the words tumble out in a rush, the scene unspooling as if she witnessed it herself. A cavernous room, dozens of children splashing, shrieking, playing, when Sammy’s parents suddenly realize something is wrong and yell for the lifeguards, who dive in together, everyone trying to pull Sammy to the surface, out of the pool, but he’s fighting off the help, not fully conscious, limbs thrashing, the other adults unable to do more than clutch their own children, as Sammy is pulled to the deck, CPR applied to his weak heart, which lets go its fight in the ambulance.

Judi steps around the desk to embrace her. Jennie stands frozen in the doorway. “Sammy,” Lauren repeats. “He would have been yours this year.”

Jennie declines Lauren’s lunch invitation, intent on heading to her schools, her eagerness to move on as obvious as a puppy straining at its lead.

“I appreciate your help this morning,” Jennie says, “but I need to figure some things out on my own.”

“Just be sure to keep in touch. I’m here to support you. And your students.”

Lauren watches her drive off, the geography of their work meaning they’ll only see one another at staff meetings and scheduled observations. She wanted to say, “you’ll get there,” but the job requires a willingness to absorb and distill experiences, and a certain resilience. The numbers aren’t promising for new special educators—most leave the field never to return. Which means next August, Lauren will begin the cycle again.

For now, she’ll unpack her caseload, making room for new faces, and seeking the spark which will propel her through the next year.

…so, only brave people sit in the front row.

Mary Sophie Filicetti