“You’re going to have to be strong, Anela. Those kids need you.”
When I got off the phone with my principal I went outside and stared at the setting sun. It had been just hours since I got word about Nyella and now I had to prepare to tell her 1st grade classmates why her spot on the rug was empty.
It was my first year teaching. I was 24 and this first job was my dream come true. I was so excited in my first day of school dress to meet my sweet little ones to show them their new classroom. It had a tree in the library, birds hanging from the ceiling, color coordinated wicker baskets with fresh crayons. The picture perfect start I envisioned quickly changed as the kids started running and I don’t think they stopped. I had no clue how to manage this group and while trying my hardest to be the teacher they deserved, I constantly fell short.
I took solace in the kids that would sit calmly and give me that “I’m here with you Mrs. Deisler” look. One of them in particular seemed to always be there for me. She was frequently first in line. Waiting with a smile after dropping off her kindergarten sister. On her birthday, she brought in cheesecake to share with me at lunch. She even brought back a princess ring for me when she went to Disneyland! She was the peace in my day.
Now, she is the peace in my heart. Sometimes she’s the motivation. Sometimes still just sadness. That June she died in a fire with three of her cousins and her aunt. Trying to process the loss of a child while also supporting her friends was something I could never prepare for. I know what I went through is nothing compared to her parents and sister; her mother and family are always on my mind. But I loved her and now as I think about her on her 15th birthday, I also treasure her school photo that still sits next to my bed. It reminds me of her kind smile and sweet demeanor.
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I don’t take the privilege of taking school portraits or any portrait lightly. I know how fragile this beautiful life is and I strive to take portraits that capture the essence of the ones we love. I treasure that photography helps us hold on to the fleeting moments with an image of our most treasured memories. Sharing this story is difficult but I want to be honest and open about why I am a photographer. And now, I take a deep breath and head home to my precious ones. I'll surely hold them a little tighter today.