As I’m packing up my bag to go home for the day, a former student is suddenly framed in my classroom door.
We smile, hug, sit down, and a few minutes into the visit the former student clears their throat and says, “Can I ask you something?”
“Do you think about ______.”
“All the time.”
The former student smiles, “I’m glad you said that. I thought maybe I was weird or something, you know. Because I think about______all the time. Eating lunch. Lying in bed. Laughing about something______would laugh about.”
It was quite for a few minutes.
From the looks of things, we were both trying not to cry.
“Mr. Armstrong, is it weird I still think about ______?”
I reassure the student it was not weird. In fact, I ensured them it’s completely normal to think about the dead. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the bummers of being alive. But the living have an earthly responsibility to remember the dead. The remembering reminds us of the brevity of life and instructs us on how to be a better person.
I shift my weight in my chair and tell the former student that it was difficult for me to come back to the classroom this year. 17 years of teaching and I was unsure of myself. It wasn’t the material that unnerved me, it was trying to connect to students again. I believe it was and still is my social and emotional responsibilities of being a public school teacher. To show young people human connection was the heart of education. Which meant– I had work to do.
I explained I do some things differently now.
“Because of ______?”
“This year, I’ve made a conscious decision to connect with all my students. Not just the talkative ones. But the quiet ones. Like______. I made it a daily habit to greet all my students at the classroom door. Say hello, call them by name, and ask them how their day is going. It’s a nice moment between teacher and student.”
I tell the former student I regret that I never asked ______how the day is going.
For the rest of the visit, we steered the conversation away from _______. We talked about college, writing, about funny things that happened last year and how last year felt like it happened 20 years ago.
We walked out the classroom together, I locked the classroom door and told the former student that if they needed to talk about writing or life or ______ to please reach out to me.
We shook hands, parted ways, and I walked out to my car, cranked the engine, and thought about ______ all the way home.
Such is the internal life of a teacher.
PS– Writer Bill Lyon passed away on Sunday, November 17, 2019. Bill was a sports columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I grew up reading Bill as he wrote with both Philadelphia grit and bleeding-heart honesty. The way he wrote suggested Bill believe sports revealed deeper truths about himself and humanity. There was a bigness to his articles, which I loved. Victory or defeat, the outcome was inconsequential–the game was always about truth. And sports were just sweaty keys to unlocking bigger mysteries.
Some 20 years ago, Bill wrote an article about his wife, Ethel, receiving a cancer diagnosis. I must of read the article a dozen times. I admired his vulnerability. For a man to print his fears without fear of shame or embarrassment was amazing to me. It was validation. It so bold, so unwavering and one of the finest things I ever read. I cut out the article and tacked it on a cork board in my bedroom where it stayed for years.
Bill Lyon was a major influence on what I’m trying to do. Write honestly about how fear and vulnerability reveal big truths about ourselves and the person we aspire to be.
Thank you, Bill. Rest easy.
Here is an excerpt from an article Bill wrote about life after Ethel (his wife), and why he’ll never, ever give in to Alzheimer’s