Three years ago today, I was sitting at my brother-in-law’s funeral. He was 22. I watched him grow from an annoying, mischievous, yet lovable, 8-year-old to a fun-loving and golden-hearted young man. His first words to me were, “You’re fat, you’re ugly, and your feet stink.” I’ll never forget the day I met him. Or the last day I saw him- he stopped by to bring me a birthday card featuring a good-lookin’ shirtless cowboy.
John and I spent a lot of great times together. In junior high, he joined band and played the trumpet. I like to think he chose the trumpet because I played the trumpet, and everyone knows that’s what all the “cool” people play. I had the opportunity to work with John as he was learning to play, and we played together at church and at his grandmother’s funeral. He was asked to play a trumpet solo when his school band performed “Sweet Georgia Brown” which happened to be the exact same solo I played when I was in junior high. I was proud of that kid!
I also worked closely with John when I was in college. For my remedial reading class, I had to work with a student with reading difficulties. I chose John. John had been a struggling student pretty much all his life. He was deaf until he was three, so his language development was delayed. He was identified as having a Learning Disability, and was reading below grade level.
John never thought he was smart. He never really stated it outright, but I could tell that he didn’t have a very high self-esteem. But John was gifted in so many ways. He was very mechanically inclined and artistic, as well. (And boy did he have a sense of humor and a kind heart!)
I remember the modifications he made to his go-kart as a kid along with all the other contraptions he put together to get into some sort of mischief. He was always drawing and sketching and his artwork was much better than anyone else’s I knew. I remember his last Christmas with us- he effortlessly assembled my daughter’s Barbie castle without even looking at the directions.
While I may have taught John a few things about playing the trumpet and about reading in his short life, it will never compare to how much he changed me.
Displayed at his funeral, there were many “statues” that he had welded together from pieces of scrap metal. John saw hidden beauty in this junk and had brought to life a cowboy, a dog, and several other humorous characters. This young man died thinking he wasn’t good at much, when in reality he had so much to offer this world.
I can’t help but wonder if things would be different if his school experiences had built upon his strengths. I realize the car accident wasn’t directly related to his self- image, but perhaps his path in life would have been different and he would not have ended up behind that log truck.
I realize that we can’t change the past and there is no point dwelling on it, but even if the accident were inevitable, it would make things seem a little better knowing that John realized his value while he was alive.
Now looking back, I realize John’s death wasn’t in vain. For me, it emphasized the importance of understanding the magnitude of our role as teachers. Each one of the students we touch is a unique being with a purpose to fulfill in life. Each student has a wealth of untapped ideas ready to be cultivated and used to benefit society. We are often pressured into thinking about our students as a product moving down an assembly line and we must do our part in crafting this item into the pre-identified end product. This is wrong.
And often, we don’t realize how detrimental this mentality can be. I never realized it until John’s death. Some individuals are fortunate to have teachers who recognize their value as an individual, who build upon their natural strengths. And many people have time after their “schooling” ends to explore their interests and realize they have something to contribute to this world. Society has been fortunate to reap the benefits of the contributions of those individuals who have had the opportunity to use their ideas for the betterment of others. John was beginning to do this, but his time was cut short.
We never know how long we, or any of our students, have on this Earth. If we aren’t careful, if we get too caught up in teaching and covering content, we may overlook the value within each of our students.
After John’s death, I made a vow to myself that I would do my part to help inspire teachers and students to see the value in themselves and those around them. I realize this blog isn’t much, but it is one small way to honor John. John changed me, and I plan to change the face of education for the students of tomorrow.
(This isn’t a bad goal for someone who is fat, ugly and has stinky feet!)