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The Empty Desk: A Story of Classroom Community

Felicia Roberson


Student LossAs educators, we are often faced with situations that a college education cannot prepare us for. 

This story is about an experience that taught me a lesson I could not learn in school and showed me the importance of establishing a community in my classroom. 

Sean was a crack-up kid in my American Literature class.  The class clown, Sean always had the last say, and thrived on being the center of attention. 

While lecturing the class on Romanticism, Mr. Sean was having the time of his life, 3rd row, 2nd desk to my left.  When I cut my “momma eye” at him, his smiling eyes met mine. Defusing my emerging anger, he looked at me and said,

  • “I love you, Mrs. Roberson!”
  • “I love you, too, Sean”, I replied. 

Saved by the bell, Sean and the kids raced for their lives into the hallway while I stood there wondering what just happened. 

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The following morning, I was met in the front office by my assistant principal. She told me to step into her office, and asked me to take a seat.  Without hesitating, she fumbled a few papers on her desk and said poignantly,

  • “Sean died last night."

She went on to tell me that there was an accident on the island (we lived in a coastal community) and Sean was pronounced dead on the scene. 

  • “If you need to send kids to guidance, grief counselors will be available all day”, she said.

I was dismissed to carry out my day.  Of all the things I learned in college, no one ever prepared me to deal with tragedy hits the classroom. 
Lesson plans prepared, and the day somewhat mulling along as usual, the 3rd period bell rings, signaling the beginning of what was Sean’s class. An unusual hush descended into the room as students aimlessly found their assigned seats.  I look up to take roll, and see the empty desk.  Sadness had taken a seat into our once lively class room. 

Following protocol, I asked if any students wanted to see the grief counselors.  No one moved.  No one wanted to leave.  They wanted to talk about Sean. 

That day changed my perspective in teaching on so many levels.  It taught me the importance of establishing a community in the class.  My kids wanted to stay in OUR classroom.  They wanted to talk to ME about their pain and their grief.  They were looking to ME to say SOMETHING that would make sense of all of this.  Needless to say, the lesson plan for today had nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe.


Have you ever had a moment that changed your teaching perspective? Share in the comments section!