On the Death of a Beloved Teacher

The first message, email, or notification I saw this morning was one telling me that one of my favorite high school teachers had died. The youngest of all of my teachers, I doubt he was even fifty years old. He left a family and many former students behind. I cannot picture him any other way than smiling because he was so rarely stern. He was excited about teaching, passionate about his subject, and always kind and patient with his students.

I was his teaching assistant for one semester my senior year and that afforded us more time to chat about things beyond school subjects. We talked about our experiences in the church — mine positive, his negative. He listened to the CDs I brought in because I was excited about the bands. We even talked a bit about how ridiculous high school could be. He was one of the men in my life (the other being my father) who told me that guys were intimidated by me (more about that here). He took every opportunity to pour his positive energy into me and every other willing student he found.

When I graduated from high school I didn’t want to have a standard graduation party. So many of my closest friends were older and had graduated a couple years before. There were so many other parties people had to go to. And I was not a big partier myself. But I did want to do something. Something different. So I asked several favorite teachers out to dinner at a nice restaurant (yep, I was that student). And he was among them. Later, I felt beyond honored to be invited to his intimate backyard wedding.

Back then there was no social networking. No Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. And when I went away to college, we lost touch. A few years ago I connected with his wife online, but he wasn’t in any of her pictures. I didn’t want to pry, but it was clear that over the years something had changed. I discovered he was no longer teaching and that he was dealing with some difficult personal problems.

In January I reached out to his wife, hoping perhaps he and I could meet for coffee sometime. I let her know I was praying for him. In the back of my mind I knew I was unlikely to get a call or text from him saying, Hey, next time you’re in town let’s chat. But I wasn’t ready to hear the news that he died only five months later.

Grief is always hard. And it’s hard in different ways. I can’t feel the intense grief that this man’s wife and children do. Or his closest friends. My grief is distant and regretful and feels small and futile and very personal. I told my husband and my sister the news this morning. They both had him as a teacher and loved him. He was a “cool” teacher, after all. But somehow I don’t think the news, though sad, brought them to tears as it did me. He is not the first of our teachers to die, and my husband took it much harder than I did when two of his favorite teachers died a few years ago, teachers that weren’t generally considered “cool” and that many people actively disliked.

Just last year I pulled out my senior yearbook when some friends were over so we could laugh over how intense and sincere and clever everyone was back in high school. Amid the joking, I was deeply touched when I ran across this teacher’s note to me.

It was probably not something I needed to hear back then, when I was also very impressed with myself. But it was something I dearly needed to hear nearly twenty years later, when I was questioning my performance in my chosen career path, which has reached a dead end, and my writing, which comes with a lot of rejection and waiting and wondering if I am fooling myself. People expected big things of me back then. And I didn’t feel I’d measured up to the standards I’d set for myself or those set for me by others.

This teacher could have written any number of clichés — Great to have you in class! Have a nice summer! Best of luck in college! Study hard! Instead he gave me a little flame of encouragement that would brighten my outlook twenty years later, even when things were dark in his own life. And maybe that’s what I grieve. Because I don’t feel like I gave that back to him. I wanted to. But it was too little, too late.

How much our teachers give, and how little they so often get in return, even from the students who adore them. If there is someone in your life — a teacher, a babysitter, a pastor, a Sunday school teacher, a music teacher, a relative, a mentor — whom you have neglected to thank in a while, who poured into you when you were young and self-centered and too busy to notice, rebuild your connection with them starting today. Send a note to tell them how much you appreciated them. Because someday, you won’t be able to.

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