Living Legacies

This afternoon I was greeted with news which literally took my breath away. A teacher at my daughter’s middle school had a stroke on Sunday and died. She was still a young woman. Although not a close friend, we had been acquainted for close to a decade. I did my middle school student teaching there, and then a few years later, she was my oldest daughter’s 7th grade reading teacher. This year, she was a sponsor of the Bible club of which my 12 year old daughter is a member. The lives of two of my children were touched by this one woman.

There have been so many celebrity losses recently: Whitney Houston, Junior Seau, Adam Yauch. All in their 40s. All in what should have been the prime of their of life. All with more to share with the world. And there are the losses which took place years ago which are still felt even now: James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, Kurt Cobain. Icons who changed our point of view in such different, and yet, profound ways. We mourn them collectively and privately. We pass on their legacies to future generations. They are immortalized on film and vinyl.

But who mourns the loss of a teacher? How often do we reflect on what has been lost when a teacher dies? This is the third colleague, and yes I call her colleague because those of us who teach share a special bond, that I’ve lost in the last three years.

The first was a wonderful woman who will always have a place in the heart of both my 12 year old and myself. She was her 2nd grade teacher when my daughter was the new kid at school. She took my daughter under her wings and made her feel protected in a new place. She fought cancer courageously and quietly and kept teaching until near the end when she just could not go any longer. Her loss devastated my daughter.

The second was a co-worker of mine. She was a foreign language teacher. When I was the new teacher on the block, she was infinitely kind to me. She was tough, yet gentle with her students, and they adored her. She had one of the most generous hearts and beautiful souls. When she too succumbed to cancer two years ago, I missed her funeral. Not because I didn’t try to go but because the small church was filled to capacity, and there was no parking for blocks. She was beloved in that small town and is still missed.

And now another star teacher is gone. Suddenly, shockingly, without warning. Another school community is devastated. I can only imagine the grief of her family. What has been lost with her? What lives will she not be here to touch and maybe save?

We do that. We do more than teach to the despised tests. At least good teachers do. We love our kids. We help our kids with more than just grades. We loan them an extra dollar for lunch. We wipe tears away and give hugs even when we’re warned against it. We buy baby clothes and belts. We provide paper, pencils, binders without expectation of getting them back. We get a suicidal student help. We see past the sagging pants and gang-banger persona to the young man inside. We give second and even third or fourth chances. We do all of those things and more. I’ve done all of those things and more.

These three wonderful women are gone from us now. That cannot be changed. What can be changed is the way we live our lives in their memory. Each one has left behind hundreds, maybe thousands, of living legacies. They have left behind more than test scores on paper. They left behind a piece of themselves in each and every child who passed through their classrooms. They have forever changed the lives of their students. They deserve to be remembered and mourned as much as any Hollywood or rock and roll icon. Maybe even more so.

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