One week ago, I lost a former student in a horrific car accident. He was one of my very first students, and—all politics aside—he was a favorite and, later, a friend. I wrote to him instead of to his family, but I intend to share this with many. His loss will linger longer, a twinge I’d like to keep happy but today it smarts hard.
Well, damn. That book that you loved so much—They Say, I Say—which, you say, taught you “how to bullshit your way through many college essays,” would be REALLY HELPFUL RIGHT NOW as I try to write to you and cope with the fact that you’re gone.
Sly joking to deflect emotional involvement didn’t help either… another trick you would have likely employed.
I’m gonna start off real embarrassing for you: how I will always remember you the first time I had you in class. Are you ready?
You were fourteen, wearing some hilarious and hideous Hawaiian shirt and your hair was a bowl-cut but a longer, lop-sided bowl cut. Do you remember? It was nuts, but it somehow suited you in an 80’s Sean Penn-but-less-wavy kind of way. (I won’t even go into my own appearance at fourteen. This is strictly for your embarrassment only.)
Now that we’ve got that out of the way… some other notes. Thank you for understanding my jokes. I know that’s a small gesture, to laugh at a teacher’s jokes, but you actually knew them. This occurrence was likely the fact that you had a brother a couple years older than me, so he’d likely shown you all the same movies and books that I would joke about, which were way beyond many of your classmates’ understandings (and, really, thank God for them). Your understanding made me feel less alone in a new career. It meant something to me.
I remember advising you not to get into the wrong stuff in high school, probably your sophomore year. The wrong stuff was pretty straightforwardly called pot, alcohol, and careless sex. I specifically remember one day talking with you about your struggle to find and have friends who don’t want to get involved with those things, and the best I could offer you was that the best life is often a lonely one. I don’t even think I passed it off as “the extra mile is never crowded”; it was just a statement of fact. I remember you closing the door that day, and I went back to grading/planning/reading. I remember wishing I had more to offer you on that topic, but, frankly, as I type this letter, even now, I’m alone and without a drink in hand. Clearly one of us figured out this riddle, and I don’t think it is me.
We talked online last April, and you said: “I just wish school would have been more of a challenge, like if I had struggled, ya know? I know I could have been so much better if I had the drive, but if I would have been the weakest writer in class as is, I would have pushed myself so much harder. Same goes for music.”
To that, I say “no.” To that I say “you were pushed enough to get what you wanted. What I saw was creativity.” And—honestly—I tried to push you and wouldn’t have it! You were just not.going.to.do.it if you didn’t want to! Frustrating at the time, of course, but all in due course.
And, now, reflecting back on it, I have to comment that I was never the greatest high school student either. I should have told you that. I should have told you that it embarrasses me to reflect back on jr. high English because I know I barely passed; I hated it. To think I have post-graduate work in English now is beyond mind-boggling. I should have told you that you were never intended to be successful indefinitely—that kind of thing happens when it’s ready.
You continued, after I gave you flack about too much partying: “In regards to the path I’ve traveled thus far and where it is headed, I can say that although I took many pit stops in random bars and beds, I have no doubt I shall arrive at a destination of greatness; I will be showered with praise both public and private, and my self worth will finally be personified through some combination of artistic mediums. And I say that not to play the role of arrogant and invincible 21 year old, but because I must continue to strive toward becoming better, for fear of settling again. I settled immediately after high school, and was seemingly happy. But now, I must pick up my bags and pack my knowledge for the long trip that awaits.”
And it’s at this point that I just want to lie down and bawl. Because you have arrived at greatness, and you are being showered with praise both public and private. You will be personified through many artistic mediums. You were striving to be better, and you were packing your knowledge for the trip that awaited.
I am so, so sad that the trip was cut short. But I must say that you obliterated your goals. You lived a life more fully than many I see passing on at eighty. And, my God, I am so inspired. Talking with former students, I’ve heard many state that you were the most genuine and nice person they’d known. Truly.
And here’s the thing. I won’t let that make me sad. Here’s what I’m going to do, for you:
- I’m going to look back on our conversations, and I’m going to think back to the person I was when I taught you. I’m going to be that person for as long as I can. I’m going to remember how you saw me, and I’m going to try to do that for others; I will push them when they might not want me to, because that’s what you wanted for yourself.
- I’m going to keep buying my son crazy musical-related gear, because you said that it made you insanely happy to have your passions be supported by your parents.
- I’m going to re-read The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde because you said it “resonated with me a lot deeper than I care to admit to most people.” It’s been awhile since I’ve read it, and even if you never finished it, it will always be one of my favorite books of all time—your liking of it just proves its value.
I’ll do these for you and for those I’ve yet to meet. I must pick up my bags and pack my knowledge for the long trip that awaits. I don’t know how long that trip will be, but you’ve taught me to live my life and know its worth. I thank you for your time, and I will never forget your worth.
All my best,