In the 2009-2010 school year, a history teacher colleague and I set out on our second year of the journey we called Hislish. We taught together, everyday. We saw the same kids, everyday. It was a tight-knit group. Unfortunately, at the end of that year, I received an opportunity to teach for the Governor's School, the position I currently occupy. The decision to leave was hard, but the future of our class was, like so many abberrations to the early 20th-century factory model of education, administratively in doubt. I still see those kids in dreams and in memories, but I hadn't seen them in the flesh for a while.
I use that metaphor, in the flesh, intentionally. Flesh is weak and malleable. It betrays our confidence in it with the slightest pin-prick of a splinter. It betrays our trust in it when it falters and fails to recover. I saw these students again in the flesh because one of them discovered how frail our lives can be.
On February 27th, one of my former students, at the age of 20, died of Leukemia. He fought 14 months. We say that we fight cancers of all types, but this time the fight was truly vicious. This young man was a fighter in the classroom, on the football field, and in his daily life. There was no challenge too big for him to accept. In fact, the bigger the challenge, the more fight in this student. On March 8th, sitting in a church built to host 800 people in a single service, I looked around at the crowd so large people were standing along the walls. Five eulogists chronicled the young man's many achievements: football captain despite his short stature; All-State defensive player again despite his small stature; honor roll student; college student athlete; devout man of faith; best friend to another student; brother to another young man graduating high school this year. As you might assume, tears come often and plentiful, but so did the laughter. The funeral truly was a celebration of life. And we all celebrated together: catching up while sharing bittersweet hugs and smiles.
But it wasn't the funeral that helped me understand the importance of our lives, as teachers, to these young people. It was the viewing.
As it was only my second viewing, I was hesitant to go. Luckily, my sense of duty and my affection for the family prevailed. That was what made this even harder; the young man's mother was a colleague. How do you look someone you know in the face and truly offer them the encouragement and sympathy they need, especially after the loss of a child? The answer was unexpected. As my wife and I stood in line to express our condolences, I could hear my friend crying with each expression of grief as though it were the first. The heart-rending cries of a mother who has lost her child. I held it together, trying to appear strong for her, trying to stand as a support it a time of trouble. Then we were there, standing before her. We gave her a big hug. She stepped back, and said: "Do you remember the poem he wrote for class about being a big brother?" I said I had. She asked if I remembered walking it down to her and telling her that if it didn't make her cry, then nothing would. I said I did. Then she said this: "I've kept that poem in my purse the entire time." We both crumpled. I wanted to say "thank you for sharing that with me" but all I could manage was "Thank you" before losing my composure. We hugged, and my wife and I moved out of line.
But in that moment, I knew why it was I started doing this job in the first place. That might have just been an assignment at the time, but it became something more. The work we do, asking students to define themselves in different formats and fonts, asking students to express their humanity, is vital. Science and mathematics have their practical applications, but the humanities helps us to feel and to know ourselves better. So, behind all of the sadness and the encouragement, behind the faith and the despair, behind the questions and the silent answers, a small piece of paper was transfigured into a totem of great love. All I had to do was give him the time to write. I cannot think of a testament more powerful than that.
So, hang in there. Keep teaching. Even in these darker days of the third quarter, there are moments that remind us just how muchh our work means in the long run.