“Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?” ~ Ezra Bayda
By this point in my career I’ve worked with literally hundreds of students. While I’ve been fortunate to maintain some connection with many, that number is dwarfed by all those who’ve fallen, largely or entirely, through the cracks of my hazy, fragmentary memory.
There remain a handful of students, however, whose memory persists independently of whether I see them online or even talk with them at all. Emily was one I’d always wanted to find but never managed to track down, despite periodic efforts. I kept trying because years ago we’d started talking and I wanted to get back to that, to resume the conversation and catch up.
I have to admit, I recall little to nothing about Emily as a sophomore World History student during my first year of regular teaching (actually, that whole year is something of a stressful blur). What I do remember, vividly and fondly, is that during her senior year Emily got into the habit of stopping by my classroom after the end of the school day, just to sit and chat.
There were two teachers’ desks in the room, and maybe two or three times a week Emily would show up a few minutes after the last bell and sit at the other desk, and together we’d wind down after the long day. I don’t recall the specifics—although I do know one recurring theme was whatever she was going through with her boyfriend at the time. These conversations were simply an opportunity to decompress, to talk about whatever came up. Toward the end of that year, Emily gave me one of her senior photos, on the back of which she’d written the following:
I’m really glad I’ve found someone that can listen to me (and will listen to me) and say “Hey, I know what you mean.” It’s a nice change from the blank stares I’m used to. I always look forward to talking with you, if for no other reason because I know you won’t judge me. I’ve learned a lot from you. Thank you.
So years and years passed, until this past fall when, through the miracle of Facebook, I finally stumbled upon Emily through a mutual friend’s post…about Emily’s cancer. I immediately raced over to her profile (I’d been unable to find her in part because she stopped using her maiden name and I was unaware of either of her married names), where I saw that she was living right here in metro Denver. Excited, I sent a friend request and wrote a quick note asking if she really was here and was there anything I could do and I looked forward to getting in touch.
Emily accepted the friend request—which turned out to be a real gift, as it’s enabled me to get updates about her and interact with others who knew her—but for reasons I’ll never know, I never actually heard from her in the few weeks she had left. I didn’t press the issue, because I knew she had more than enough to deal with already, and I assumed there’d be time to catch up sooner or later. Emily might have assumed the same: I’ve been told she was texting people hours before she died, giving no indication anything was particularly dire.
The memorial service was difficult but healing, and I was glad not only to be able to say a few words, but also to get a glimpse of the second half of her all-too-short life through the other speakers. I remember one of them saying that Emily was probably looking down on us right then and apologizing for making everyone cry.
Two other things stood out from that evening: the extent to which she’d held on to the unfailing kindness, warmth, and self-effacing intelligence I remembered, judging by the comments of those who’d only known Emily in her 30s; and the fact that she’d become a therapist. To think that years after I’d provided a space in which she could say whatever was on her mind, knowing she’d be heard and not judged, and then went on to do something like that for others, as a professional…well, I couldn’t help but take some small measure of teacherly pride in this news—though to be clear, at the time Emily and I chatted I didn’t think I was doing anything special. We were just hanging out, just enjoying each other’s company.
Without getting bogged down in the emotional turmoil that finally finding—then just as suddenly losing—Emily plunged me into, I will close with two lessons I’m drawing from this experience.
The first stems from my realization that, had Emily not taken up stopping by my classroom two years after I’d been her teacher, she might have remained one of the many former students whose names and faces I struggle to recall. And this seems wrong somehow, that the structure and culture of schools should ever get in the way of people connecting with each other in lasting, transformative ways. One more reason, I suppose, to be grateful I found my way to Sudbury schooling, where relationships come first and there’s always time for what’s most important. I hate that, way too often and in way too many places, these things are marginalized. I only got to know Emily outside the school day, by chance; I almost missed knowing her at all, really. How many more connections did I miss out on because trivial concerns got in the way?
The other, related lesson is never to assume there’ll be time later to catch up with people, to nurture our relationships with friends and family. It’s something of a cliché to never count on having tomorrow, or even the next moment; certainly immersing myself in Zen has raised my awareness of the impermanence of things. But the suddenness of Emily’s passing brought this home to me in a way no platitudes or philosophies could hope to match. If you get nothing else from reading this, please, take some time today, right now, to reach out to someone you’ve been meaning to contact but haven’t; tell someone (or lots of someones) in your life that they matter. Don’t wait until you have more time, or it’s easier—do it now.
I will never enjoy the opportunity to catch up with my old after-school conversation partner (though I am hoping to gather more stories about her, to fill in some of the gaps), and that’s a terrible, gnawing weight I will always carry with me. Yet if I can preserve and honor Emily’s memory by passing along some of what she’s taught me, then at least her loss will not have been in vain.