When Former Students Die: A Teacher’s Reflection

If you teach long enough you’ll come to learn that the human story never graduates.

I last saw him 11 years ago.

Waiting for the graduation procession to begin, under that shadow of his squared cap, tassel dangling about his face, he smiled and said, “Mr. Armstrong, can you believe it, they’re actually letting me graduate!”

I smiled, “Yeah, God knows what they were thinking.”

A few years after graduation, he married his high school girlfriend, the girlfriend he sat next to in my English class.

They had a daughter together. Built a life together. And then he died.

He was 29.

In truth, I haven’t thought much about Mark since our time together.  Nothing intentional, it’s just as a teacher, so many lives come in and out of your life that it’s easy to lose track of who has passed through.

Yet when a Facebook post informed me that Mark had died, his name, his smile toggled memory, transporting me back to my old classroom–room 201.

In 2006, we were all young.

Collectively, what we lacked in knowledge we made up for in enthusiasm.

I was 26, inexperienced, short on life-lessons yet excited at the prospect of teaching and inspiring and helping mold the minds of young adults.

Most of the students were 18, fueled by hormones, seduced by the promise of adulthood and all its liquid freedoms.

They weren’t malicious.

Just kids straddling adulthood. Bursting with energy. Kids uninterested in dated stories scratched in stale books written by dead white guys.

It was in those days when I began to learn how your students’ lives wedge themselves into your life. How their drama becomes your drama. How their remarks and actions and attitudes confound you, unnerve you, keep you up at night and make you question the fate of the world.

But teach long enough and it all begins to run together.

Summers are merely conjunctions linking one run-on school year to the next.

And in this rambling life sentence, the days and weeks and years overlap. The names and faces and voices that were once so prominent, so sharp in your life only round and dull over time.

But when you learn a former student has died and you hear their name, you read their obituary, something happens. A key is turned, an engine started and the memory machine chokes and begins its work.

It’s been 11 years but…

I remember…

…the class consisted of mostly males. It often felt and sounded and even smelled like a locker room. Based with deep laughs ,those students in room 201 were unconcerned with things like death, poetry and me–a young teacher fixed with a knotted tie, polished shoes teaching his little heart out.

I remember…

…how the classroom windows faced east and how in the Spring sun would rise and blaze through the thin windows and how after lunch, room 201 turned into a cinder block oven.

I remember…

…Mark complaining it was just too hot to learn.

I remember…

…for most of the school year Mark slouched in his seat. Legs stretched out as far as they would go. In his hands, he would often work a hand grip. Squeezing the tension and releasing, until one hand would tire then he would switch to the other.

I remember…

…how his girlfriend sat beside him in class. How they would slide their desks close together. How he would rest his free hand on her knee and continue to work the hand grip with the other.

I remember…

…when they weren’t flirting they were fighting.

I remember…

…during a stretch of days, in late May when the outside world hummed with life and there was little reason to pay attention to me, Mark’s feet were flat on the floor, elbows on the desk, hand grip unseen, eyes glued to the pages of the book we were reading, The Things They Carried.

I remember…

…he told the class to shut up when I was reading how Curt Lemon, a 19 year old U.S. soldier, walked carelessly through the Vietnam jungle, stepped on a mine and blew himself apart.

I remember…

…Mark holding a copy of the book, standing in the class doorway looking at me and smiling and saying, “I really like this book.”

Mark wasn’t the first of my former students to die however, it’s always hard to imagine your former students dead.

Because when you taught them, they were young and indestructible and alive. As if they would always be that way.

It’s not in the job description, no one tells you this, but teachers are carriers of life.

Every student’s story, no matter of big or small, how dramatic or pedestrian is fixed with an intangible weight.  A weight that you carry with you, from lesson to lesson, from year to year, forever. So when you learn that a former student has died, that former student and their former life is suddenly present, is suddenly now.

And 11 years later, when your on your couch, scrolling through your Facebook feed and you read the news and see the face, you retreat into memory and you feel a familiar heat and hear the straining echoes of your first lessons and your big blue eyes dart across the classroom to find a smiling young man, working hand grips with one hand, cupping his girlfriend’s knee with the other, waiting for high school to end.

Waiting for life to begin.

Be well,

Jay

Bowling with God (or a curious conversation with my son about death)

When I grow up I still want to see the world through childish eyes.

A few days after writing Advice from the Dead, Chase and I were in the car together. I’m driving, he’s tucked in the backseat and it’s raining.

Of course it’s raining.

Stories like this are almost always punctuated by weather.

With the windshield wipers on full tilt, a rumble of thunder rolls overhead and flash of lightening splits the night sky in half.

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“Dad”, Chase says, “did you know when there’s thunder and lightning God is bowling in heaven.”

“Yes, bud I did know that.”

“How did you know that dad?”

“Well, I went to catholic school just like you buddy. And my teachers told me the same thing.”

Call it telepathy, call it being a parent but I felt the questions forming like thunderclouds in his head. He’s pondering the angles of time. He’s attempting to comprehend the news that I was once a kid like him, unsure and curious, sporting a catholic school uniform, sitting quietly with folded hands as the teacher educated us on things like God and heaven and bowling.

The car eases to a traffic light and stops.  The rain falls hard and heavy.  The windshield fogs at its edges.

“Dad, do know who the Ultimate Warrior is?”

( Clearly, not the question I was expecting.)

“The wrestler?”
“Yeah.”
“Yes I know who he is. Why?”
“Because he died.”
“I know.”
“Dad, he had cancer and he died.”

“Hey buddy, how did you know that?”                                                                           “Youtube.”

The first person I ever really knew who died was my grandmother. I was 16 when it happened. I remember not thinking much about her death. In a way, I guess, it made sense. She was old and sick and she died. And that was that.

I catch Chase in the rear view mirror. His knees pressed against his chest, feet up on the seat, his oversized eyes watching the watery glow of street lights and store signs flick by. I’m envious. His little life unbounded by theories of time, of the unnerving truth that I will one day die and won’t be here to answer his questions.

The light turns green and we go.

The second person I knew who died was a close family friend, Joey.  One night, for reasons still unknown, he hung himself with his karate belt in the bathroom. He was 12. I was 18. He was a happy and popular and had blonde hair then he was dead.  I remember my dad, with wet eyes and strained words, explaining what happened, clearing his throat, working out the details. I remember saying I was fine. I remember going to school.  I remember sitting in history class, staring out the window watching the morning bloom into its becoming and imaging what it must be like to be dead. Was it like my grade school teachers said? Was it peaceful and warm? Was everything italicized in gold?  Was God even there? If so, would he greet me? Would we go bowling? If so, would I have to bring my own shoes or does heaven have a shoe rental counter?

The engine shifts and we pass the plastic heavens of suburbia– Target, Starbucks, Chick-fil-A.

I was curious. I wanted to press the conversation. I wanted to know what my child knew about life, about death.

“Hey Chase, do you know what happens when you die?”
“What?”

“Well, bud…you go to heaven.”
“Oh yeah. They said that at school.”

“So dad, is the Ultimate Warrior in heaven?”

“I think so.”
“But he doesn’t have cancer in heaven. Because you can’t have cancer in heaven, right dad?”
“Chase, do you know what cancer is?”
“It means you’re really sick.”
“Kind of.”
“Dad, do you have cancer?”

“No.”

“Dad, when you die are you going to go to heaven?”
“Well, I hope so bud.”

“Because when you’re in heaven, you’re not sick anymore and I know sometimes you’re sick. That’s what mom says. So if you go to heaven you’ll feel better, right dad?”

“I hope so bud.”

“But if you’re in heaven than you can’t take me to my soccer games.”

We merge onto the highway and the engine shifts and we race under an overpass and things get quiet, the rain stops and I digest the absoluteness of my son’s declaration and I breathe and feel the spinning wheels, the pulsing engine and the car charges toward the waiting darkness and there’s an explosion of thunder, a slash of lighting and just before we exit the quiet of the overpass, Chase calmly says, “But dad if you’re in heaven you can meet the Ultimate Warrior. And then you and the Ultimate Warrior could go bowling with God.”

Beyond the brim of the overpass there looms thunder and lightning.

Before we blast headfirst into the storm I squeeze the steering wheel, stiffen my wrist, catch Chase in the mirror again and lacking something inside–maybe courage, maybe conviction to challenge his young beliefs lean my head back, brace myself for what’s to come and simply reply, “I hope so buddy.”

I hope so.

Be well,

Jay

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Advice from the Dead

The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.–Cicero

Recently, while cleaning out the garage, while rummaging through stacks of dusty boxes I came across a brown, unmarked envelope.

Intrigued, I quit rummaging, opened the envelope door and found my grandfather smiling on the other side.

Inside the envelope it’s 1954 and Pop was still years away from being Pop.

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Mike “Pop” is centered. His right hand holding a pilsner glass. To his right stands his Uncle Al.

Right now he’s Mike and he’s 25 years old and just bought at bar on the corner of Cedar and Pacific Avenue in Wildwood, New Jersey.

He renamed the place “Mike and Ed’s” and he’s serving drinks to a row of rowdy Philadelphians who escaped the tightness of their row home lives for the weekend promise of some New Jersey shore magic.

It’s early evening and the bar, like the decade itself is based with thick,  masculine laughter which overpowers the bouncy doo-wop rhythm of  “Life Could Be a Dream” frisking out the jukebox.

It smells of a different time. Of Old Spice and cigarettes.

I move across the checkered floor to an open seat at the end of the bar and watch Pop make small talk with a few sunburned necks. He laughs and it’s hearty and deep just like I remember.

Pop looks up and nods as if he’s been expecting me.

He turns to the tap, pours a beer in a short pilsner glass and brings it my way. His skinniness surprises me. But the eyes, the smile, the roundness of his shoulders are all there, like they’ve always been.

Pop puts the glass down in front of me. His blue eyes meet my blue eyes and he lays his hand on top of my hand and tells me how he appreciated the funeral, how he appreciated the eulogy I delivered even though it was a bit brief. An entire life in 1,337 words? He thought I should’ve stretched it to at least 1,700.

He winks.

Then his face gets serious.  He tells me he’s disappointed we paid full price for the luncheon after the funeral. He tells me knows an Italian who rents a little room behind the scrap yard along the Delaware River. He tells me the Italian would’ve catered the whole thing, funeral and luncheon, for half the cost.

He tells me he doesn’t have long because other people need him.

He tells me that death is a lot like life in that sense. Someone always needs you.  Someone is always failing to listen. But death, he says, brings infinite patience. Sadly, life does not.

A drunk wearing a tilted fedora calls out, “Mike, Mikey boy bring me over another one. I told the old lady I’d be home by 7 and it’s quarter of!”

Pop shoots the old man a “wait your damn turn old man” look. A look he perfects when, in a few years he becomes a police officer and spends late hours working the fanged streets of southwest Philadelphia.

He returns to me, “See what I mean, no patience.”

Then he gets serious again. Hard lines form around his eyes.

“You know what the living say about the dead? About how, at least, the dead are in a better place.”

I nod.

“Wrong. What the living fail realize is that even though your setting changes, you do not. When you die you take yourself, for better or worse, with you to the other side.  Look around. All these men came here thinking things would somehow be better. But they’re miserable laying bricks in Philly and they’re miserable drinking beer in Jersey. Fools. They thought by crossing the river, by shifting states their life would magically improve. Life, death they don’t work that way.”

He tightens his grip on my hand and says, “It’s not where you are, it’s who you are that matters. The same holds true for the afterlife. And you’re going to mess a lot of things up. But if can let love lead your way you might do just enough to get it right. And if you can understand this while you’re alive, I promise when your time comes, you’ll cross that bridge a happy man.”

He loosens his grip and the other hand drums its fingers on the bar and he looks out the window. His brow bent like mine when I’m contemplating something big.

I study his profile the way I did when I was a kid tucked in the front seat of his white pickup truck.

I remember how he would be driving and singing with Frank Sinatra and his profile would be glowing against the shifting sunlight and when the chorus hit he flashed a hard earned smile, a smile of a man who made peace with his life, with the world. A smile I can’t quite forget.

When his eyes return to mine he tells me the beer was on the house. But that was it. No more freebies. This isn’t a soup kitchen. And if I wanted another I would have to pay for it or wash dishes.

Pop takes his hand from mine. He steps back, smiles like someone about to board a plane and somehow, defying the laws earthly physics I still feel the pressure of his hand resting on mine as he drifts away, down the length of the bar, tending to the others who need him.

A bead of sweat rolls down the glass.

A heavy, hollow laughter steamrolls across the bar.

Something sits in my throat.

I want to call him back.

I want to breathe with him again.

I want to tell him I write stories about him so he doesn’t seem so dead.

I want to tell him how I missed him just a little more around Christmas. How I wish he could hold my children. How I wish they could experience his smile and hear his advice and feel the gentle pressure of his hand against theirs.

But I don’t.

Because you can’t.

Because you can’t tell the dead what they already know.

Because when you open an envelope and you’re greeted by the dead and they squint and smile and speak, all you can do is listen, consider your mortal ways and do your best to heed their eternal advice.

Be well,

Jay

 

To Robbinsville, New Jersey

Death sucks.rville

Not because of its invincibility or apathy. Its ruthlessness or timelessness. Death sucks because it divides the living.

Amidst the grieving crowd, death ostracizes  us into our own private corners.  Yes, when a person dies, the living find other. We nestle together like spoons. We offer shoulders and hands. We whisper condolences and pray together and light candles and send flowers and food. And yet despite our collective human efforts to ease each others pain, coping with death emotionally isolates us. And to me that is fucking terrifying.

To make matters worse–we grieve uniquely. The depths and degrees of our grief are individualized. We can say we understand another’s pain but no matter how accurately we can articulate, our words fall tragically short of what is swirling in our heart and head– further exposing the flawed nature of the human design.

Death sucks because we must figure out how to deal with him individually. Yes we should talk to counselors. Talk to friends. Talk to God. But with grief there is no universal set of directions. No one size fits all model.  Coping is unique to the individual. And over time we, the living, must heal in our own unique ways.

Its only been three days. This is my first attempt to heal.

It’s August and I’m standing outside his office door. To hide my nervousness I wipe my sweaty palms on my khakis.  Beyond the windows, there’s an immense blue sky holding an fiery sun whose heat is italicizing everything, whose heat crawls along my skin, whose heat provokes the butterflies in my gut to flutter a little faster and a bead of sweat to sprint down my back.

Before I became a teacher in the small town of Robinsville, New Jersey, my small town knowledge was curated by movies and John Mellencamp songs. However after 10 years of working in Robbinsville I’ve come to learn some things. Like big cities, small towns have their own movers and shakes. In small towns these people often own restaurants and hardware stores. They are as recognizable as the mayor or the varsity quarterback. Their names carry weight and a certain reverence. Their names, in a lot of ways, provide the town with its identity, with its pride and spirit.

One of the big names in Robbinsville is Dr. Steve Mayer, Superintendent of Robbinsville Schools, the man whose office doorway I’m about to enter.

If you are familiar with Write on Fight on, I have discussed before how when I got sick, I  dropped out of grad school and decided to make my stories, my life public. If I was a rodeo clown this wouldn’t be an issue. But I’m not a rodeo clown ( yes, I know– a matter of opinion) I’m a teacher. And teachers are public figures, sure not on Kardashian levels, but we do live under a small microscope.

I’m now framed in his office door and before I even knock, Steve looks up and smiles at me, as if we were meeting for the first time.  Steve always smiled as if he was meeting you for the first time.  His smile was big, original and genuine. A smile that F. Scott Fitzgerald would have dreamt up and wrote about. A smile you just don’t often find on the face of a 52 year old man.

Steve moves from behind his desk and shakes my sweaty hand. He offers me a chair and looks at me with his big blue eyes, still holding that Fitzgerald smile and says, “So, what’s up Jay?”

The butterflies in my gut land on something and I tell Steve about my idea for creating a website. About my desire to promote writing and storytelling. My desire to host Write-a- Thons  for charitable causes and my strange desire to make my life a public spectacle.  I tell him about my medical conditions. I show him the MRI of my damaged brain. His blue eyes water when I speak about my children and how I want them to know my stories in case something happened to me.

After listening, Steve smiles his smile and tells me he wholeheartedly supports my visions. He applauds my courage to tell personal stories. He validates my desire. We shake hands and wish each other well. When I get home I start writing. That was the day this website was born.

In November, Steve participated in WoFo’s first ever Write- a- Thon. An event that raised money for Special Olympics– a cause stamped in Steve’s heart. During the Write-a-Thon Steve wrote alongside the students and myself. He wrote his annual Thanksgiving newsletter. A newsletter that gave my little website a big shout out.

This past Monday I made flyers for WoFo’s second Write-a-Thon in May.  The next day, while on his morning jog, Dr.Steve Mayer was hit by a car and killed.

As I write this– an entire town is feeling his death. Feeling it the way you can be in your house, away from the windows and somehow know the sky had clouded over, that the world had darkened.  Right now there’s a little universe in central New Jersey spinning without sun. Spinning off its axis. Spinning without purpose.

On Thursday school resumed. Our first attempt at normalcy. My first period class was senior English. These were students who had known Steve their whole lives. They described him as a father figure. A mentor. A pillar of the community. A good man. A man who championed their young, promising lives the way he championed mine.

Seeing my students cry was hard. Harder than I thought it would be. I didn’t know what to do. I took deep breaths and found things to do with my hands. When I finally calmed my own tears, I found a voice, cleared my throat and I said, “Its August and I’m standing outside his office door. To hide my nervousness I wipe my sweaty palms on my khakis.”

Telling you, telling my students this story is the best way I can honor the life of a man who gave me the support and courage to start this website, to tell stories.

To Robbinsville– death sucks. But take solace in knowing that through the human magic of memories and storytelling Dr. Steve Mayer, his message and his smile are still alive. In fact, it is our earthly responsibility to make sure the dead never die.  Right now, as I’m telling you this, Steve is shaking my hand, his blue eyes are meeting mine, he is nodding with approval and his smile is big and bright and forever.

Be well,

Jay