One of the last lessons I taught my students before we broke for the summer was one of the principles of bushido, the ancient code of moral principles developed by the Japanese Samurai hundreds of years ago. To a culture that held such a tenuous grasp on life, they hoped to instill how precious and fleeting life is, and how every moment of every day is to be cherished and savored as if it was our last.
Rewind ten years. 2009.
I’d like to tell you a story. It is a story of the hardest day of teaching in my career. It was amplified by the fact that it was my first day teaching alone. Not only was it the most challenging days I’ve experienced in the classroom, but it was one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned. You could teach your entire life and never experience something like that. For those of you reading this, I hope you never do.
It was a Monday in late March. Springtime was just starting to share its warmth and splendor, and we had just experienced our first beautiful Spring weekend of the year. In New England, there’s a sort of energy that accompanies the start of Spring. It’s almost as if we are charged by the warmth of the sun, and we start to come alive as the season slowly changes.
I remember that my school just had the weekend of the drama festival. It’s essentially a huge weekend filled with competitive theater, and it’s both incredibly thrilling but equally as physically and emotionally exhausting. We had hosted it at our school’s theater that weekend, which is a wonderful honor, but it’s certainly even more grueling and exhausting than normal. I remember sitting in the theater watching these amazing performances when suddenly the focused silence of the day was broken by the sound of a helicopter. We found out after the performance that it was a life flight helicopter. Furthermore, it was one of our own students. A freshman named Jessie Peterson.
Jessie had been outside with her mother enjoying the first beautiful weekend of of Spring. As new Englanders like to do, they were taking advantage of outdoor activities for the first time in months. Little did they know, but the ice storm we had received that year had weakened and cracked one of the trees on their property. When they had tried to settle into a cozy hammock, the tree snapped and fell, seriously injuring Jessie and her mom.
That was the helicopter we heard.
When we heard what happened, we all prayed and remained vigil, putting our faith in God, in the emergency crew, and anything else we could pray to. As soon as the word got out, the community rallied in support of the Peterson family, and Jessie and her mom.
But sometimes God has other plans. We lost Jessie that weekend.
Monday Morning. I was student teaching that year, and the classes my mentor teacher taught were Theatre and English. His name was Mr. McGarty. When I tell you that my mentor teacher was an institution at that school, I am not over exaggerating. He had been there forever, it seemed. I’m sure he was busy building a set when the Titanic went down. He was universally loved and admired not only by his students, but by the school and theater community. To me as a new and aspiring teacher, I looked up to him, as a man, a teacher, and a director. I still do. He was larger than life, and always seemed to have the answer, and he was able to troubleshoot any problem that came along. He was a problem solver.
But that day, he wasn’t there. Having been unaware of what had recently happened, he was taking a well deserved day off after a grueling few weeks of drama festival preparations and organization. It was my first day alone in a classroom. It was also the first day back to school after losing one of our own. I knew it was going to be a long day. I wasn’t sure if I could get through it.
I still remember that moment clearly. I remember standing in front of my class, and looking up at the stadium seating. It was Freshman honors English. It was Jessie’s class. She had sat in the front row, right in front of me. The chair sat empty now. No one dared sit there. There was a heaviness to the air. The usual chatter and high energy and even silliness was nonexistent. The class was was a tomb.
Those who know me know that I am never at a loss for words. I can always find something to say, and when all else fails, I use humor to lighten the mood. I’ve always had a knack for that. That day, though…I was at a loss. I remember staring up at these 20 or so students who stared back at me. I had really come to love and respect them over the course of the year, and we were all pretty close. Even though Mr. McGarty was their teacher, they had become accustomed to me being there every day, and being his right hand man.
Suddenly, all eyes were on me. As I stood there frozen, still trying to simultaneously balance being the only teacher in front of a classroom of students, and having to deal with and address a sudden, devastating loss of one of our own, it was overwhelming. I felt like they needed me to be there for them. That they needed answers. That they needed me to say something that could begin to make everything alright. I kept thinking, “McG would know what to say and do right now!” I didn’t want to fail them, or fail myself.
But then the lesson came. No matter what you say or do, you will never have the words to make everything better. You can’t. Nothing you say or do is going to change the way things are. That’s the reality. It would be vanity to think otherwise. It’s going to hurt. It needs to hurt. You just need time, and you need to allow people to grieve in their own way, and acknowledge what we’re all going though. I could go into details about that day, but it’s not necessary. That was our process. I can say that the day finally ended, and we all made it though. We made it through together. I know those kids held me up that day. They gave me support, and love, and acceptance. I only hope my presence helped them as much as they helped me.
I’ve never shared this story before. I don’t really know why I’m sharing it now. It was on my mind, I suppose. Certain moments have a way of emblazoning themselves in our hearts and minds. I will always remember what a hard day that was. I’ll remember how we all got through it together. I’ll always remember Jessie. I’ll remember the unconditional love, support and unity that school and town community had throughout all of that.
Life in every breath. We all learned that lesson during those heartbreaking days. Life can be tough, and painful at times.
But it can be beautiful, too.
RIP Jessie. We love you.