our students aren't supposed to die. But sometimes they do. They don't tell you that in education classes in college nor in any teacher training I've been through. It happens; there's no good answer for it. And when it does, it knocks you off your already wobbly legs.
I read about Keeley's death in the newspaper that morning, the Tallahassee Democrat. The headline read: "Local Lincoln Grad Dies in Football Training at College." I'd been teaching high school for ten years, and it wasn't that I'd never experienced the death of a student. I know the quiet that reaches across a campus the next morning, once everyone has whispered the news in the hallway. I know what it feels like to stand in front of a class of teenagers when the principal comes on the intercom to announce the moment of silence. You are supposed to be the rock, to stand in respect and say a prayer and then show them how to move on. But I cracked with Keeley. I broke down sobbing and embarrassed and had to excuse myself. I'd never lost it like that before. Not with Aaron or Ronnie or Stavia or Jeremy or Roshunda. There is an answer you look for when it happens, when these young people who aren't supposed to die do. You secretly hope you can make sense of it. Drunk driving. Poor choices. Drugs. None of it helps, though. It's just not right and nothing really makes it better. It doesn't matter if there is a fault or not. You just want to turn back the minutes until their faces are alive in row three giving you a flimsy excuse for not finishing their homework. You'll do anything to hit rewind. But you can't.
I met Keeley one week into his senior year, the moment before the promise of the rest of his life. He was a running back on our football team, which made Keeley a resident celebrity. In our little southern town, football is a religion and our players are worshipped. Lincoln High School has one of the top high school football programs in the country and our graduates are recruited nationwide. Keeley was a star player that year, and great at Lincoln meant good enough to go to college on a scholarship. Many of our football players are from families that can't afford college; a scholarship was the ticket out. Keeley won the prize with a full ride to the University of South Florida.
Keeley came late to class the day we met. It was the second week of school. I am Mrs. Young, Room 133, take your seat and start working. I'm weathered enough to know that a lot of teaching is acting. It's a daily performance where I have to balance "Yes, learning can be fun" with "No, your late assignments aren't acceptable." Some days I do it more successfully than others. Standing in front of a room full of hormonal teenagers who despise English requires a serious game face. Keeley joined my freshman "general" English class, the lowest level of reading. Most of these students do not want to be in school and they certainly don't want to be in English. As a senior, Keeley shouldn't have been in the class at all.
Keeley came in with his head down and his schedule in his hand. Two minutes after the bell, the class was silent except for the scribble of pen in their notebooks. My students were working on their Bell Work, a writing prompt on the board. I only have fifty minutes with them, so we begin working immediately. I can't allow tardiness or I lose five valuable minutes of distraction. By day two or three of a class, my students know the drill. I have a sign above my desk that reads "Students Do Not Need Kindness That Weakens Them." They know I mean business, and by the end of the year, they know I love them unreasonably.
Keeley walked right up to my desk. He didn't take the empty seat in the back row and wait for me to speak. He stood by my chair and put his schedule on top of my attendance book. "I have to take this class," he said. "And I have to pass it to graduate." I looked up and met his arms. Massive muscles bulged out of his sleeveless shirt. He'd obviously cut the arms out himself; the edges of the cotton rolled and frayed. Then I saw Keeley's eyes, soft brown liquid. He looked like he might cry. "I have to pass. I won't bother you," he said. And I knew it was my moment to break, to drop the stern façade and show kindness. "Let's talk outside," I said and I led Keeley back to the door. I couldn't blame the class for following us with their eyes. Keeley wasn't much taller than me, but he was a man among children. Several of my students were whispering and pointing. I saw one of the freshman boys point to his arms and nod at another. A girl in the front row just stared with her mouth open. Someone whispered "Keeley Dorsey." I thought they might start asking for autographs. "You have two minutes to finish your journal," I announced. "I will be grading them. Get back to work, please," I said to the class, closing the door behind me.
I leaned against the door, keeping an eye on the class through the glass window, and held out my hand to Keeley. "I'm Mrs. Young," I said, "nice to meet you." Keeley shook my hand, a tight grip on my small palm. "How can I help you?"
"They sent me here from guidance. I need this credit," he answered.
"You want to take freshman English?" I asked.
Keeley looked around the hallway, not meeting my eyes. "Well, no," he smiled, cleared his throat. "I don't want to take it. No offense. I have to take it." Keeley's smile was wide and full of charm. A small line of moustache above his huge grin. Keeley ran his hand over his head and rubbed at his closely shaved curls. "You know," he said, bouncing his head a little, "I gotta take it. I kinda messed up my freshman year. I kinda got kicked out a lot and failed a little."
"A lot or a little?" I asked, crossing my arms over my chest.
Keeley laughed. "I heard about you," he said. "Yous' a ball buster. That's what I heard."
"I'm trying to do my job, Keeley. You know what it's like in there," I said.
"Yeah. I get it. I'll keep my head down. Do whatever you tell me to do. Okay? I gotta graduate."
Keeley and I shook hands again. He held the door out for me and we walked back in to the classroom together. He nodded at the empty seat in the back row and I nodded back. Keeley opened up his backpack, took out a notebook, and began copying down the assignment.
It wasn't just that Keeley was an excellent student. He was bright and offered insightful comments on the stories. He wrote well, laboriously editing his drafts. His was the last pen to be put away when the bell rang. "Bell to bell. We work from bell to bell," I'd call, reminding my students to keep working. It was Keeley on the field, his coaches said, that led the team through giving it his all. It was Keeley in the class that brought a light to the room. He worked hard, even when the work was easy for him. "Good morning, Mrs. Young. You look lovely today," he'd say every morning. I'd crack a little smile and nod back. Without saying a word, Keeley gave everyone in the room motivation to work hard. Just by being a star among us, Keeley gave us all hope.
When Keeley turned in his journal every two weeks to be graded, I would find it full of notes to me: "This was a great lesson, Mrs. Y. I got parts of speech!" "Didn't like this poem. I rewrote it ☺" He offered his commentary on everything as if we were peers and in a way, I began to think of Keeley as my partner in the classroom. We had a common goal: I wanted Keeley to graduate; Keeley wanted to pass my class and play college football. The rest of his journal was filled with poetry, his own. Pages and pages of what you would never expect from a muscled football player. Rhyming verse, romantic lyrics, admissions of tender emotions. Keeley reminded me that sometimes the front my students present has nothing to do with the reality of their hearts and their heads. I wrote Keeley a note back: "I enjoyed your poetry, Keeley. You should keep writing. Have you thought about submitting any of your work to the school's literary magazine? I think you should."
I'd like to end this here, dear reader. I'd like to tell you that it wasn't Keeley that morning in the paper, that he didn't die of a rare congenital heart disorder when he collapsed on the practice field at the University of South Florida. I'd like to tell you that I didn't attend his memorial service, that I didn't select one of Keeley's poems to print on the back of the program for the service. I don't want to think of Keeley that way, cut short on the verge of everything. I want to tell that you when you are a teacher, sometimes your students die and it's tragic and heartbreaking and you heal. But you don't. You claw through their notebook and essays and projects trying to find pieces of these young people that you can place in the laps of their parents and say "I knew him, too." You keep their stuff for years in the bottom drawer of your big teacher desk, even their multiple choice scan tron sheets because they wrote their name on them in red ink when they were alive and put a tiny heart when they dotted their 'i.'
I would like to leave Keeley in the back of my classroom, smiling at me, giving me a thumbs up because he approved of the job I was doing. Me shaking my head at him, trying to suppress a smile, shooting him a quick thumbs up back. I'd like to suspend Keeley the moment he learned that one of his poems would be published in our school's literary journal, Hollow Horse. Keeley sprinting down the hall to me where I stood monitoring the movement of students between classes, the journal open in his huge hands. "They published it! Mrs. Young! I'm a poet. Keeley, the football-playing poet. That should get the girls. Huh, Mrs. Young?"
Keeley holding up his hand for a high five.
A gentle word, like a spark of light, illuminates my soul...
From "Your Love" by Keeley Dorsey
Melissa Scholes Young was born and raised in Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain’s beloved hometown, and she writes now from Washington, D.C. where she teaches at American University. Her work has appeared in Tampa Review, New Madrid, Cold Mountain Review, Word Riot, and other literary journals. She is also a contributor to Fiction Writers Review and has been nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes. You can read more about her at www.melissayoung.com.