“The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively.” ― Bob Marley
This isn’t the first post I’d imagined writing for this site but now that I think about it, it makes sense. Every part of my writing life has always been deeply motivated and inspired by raw emotion. So why should this be any different? In actuality, it’s sort of perfect.
A few weeks ago, I learned that a former student of mine, one of my absolute favorites, passed away. He was 25. I don’t know how he went, or why, and I don’t want to. What I do know, however, is that he was one of the good ones. I don’t just mean a good student, I mean a good person. He was too smart for his own good and too unique for many others. He was a face I was happy to see every day in my classroom (when he’d bother to show up) and a smile that could change my mood in an instant. He was caring and sweet beyond belief, and one of the biggest smart-asses I’ve ever known. We spent the afternoons that he tried to procrastinate through (so EVERY afternoon) talking about books and music, and laughing to each other about the jokes no one else got. In short, he was someone people could connect to and who just wanted the same in return. This characteristic, along with our extreme emotional empathy, is the similarity that we recognized in one another, that kept us in contact, and that makes it so heartbreaking to see him go.
Ever since I heard about his passing, I’ve been struggling to find the words to understand it. It’s not just because he was so damn young or because I had taught him. (He isn’t the first student I’ve lost, and sadly he might not be the last.) It’s because we became friends in the seven years since we were teacher and student. You see, an amazing thing can happen when two people are forced to spend hours every day together …they actually get to know one another. The year he was in my class was my first full year as a teacher. I was only 23 and in charge of a room full of 16 to 20-year-old truants and dropout recoveries. To say that we all grew up together is a vast understatement. For the ones I really got to know, and who took the time to really get to know me, I felt more like their older sibling than their teacher, like a confidant rather than a superior. This was one of those relationships, and it happened so effortlessly that I’ve always wondered if there wasn’t a larger purpose for it. (I’ll save my past life beliefs for another day. :))
The tricky thing about relationships is that none of them, no matter how intentional or accidental, last forever. In life, the only real guarantee is the “leaving.” It’s the “staying” that is truly unpredictable and rare. So saying goodbye, whether it’s due to mortality or circumstance, to someone that you had one of these rare links with can be shockingly painful. But just like there are different layers to every relationship, there can be more to an ending than the pain.
I’ve lived a life where I’m lucky to say I’ve known many different kinds of people. And I’m always in awe at who actively stays close to me and at how these people manage to change me. This particular student ended up being one of my favorite teachers. He taught me—in a way only he could—to be genuine and true to myself, and to dare to be authentic. He taught me to laugh at judgment, because it just means that you’re unique. But most of all, he showed me how important it is to be there for each other, to listen to one another, and to have real conversations with real people no matter how much time has passed. These are lessons I strive to hold on to in my writing and every day life.
As a writer, person who works from home, and pretty much typical human being, I know how easy it is to shut off from the world and hide away in your own head. But we shouldn’t. Life is too hard to be a solo act. Some days feel like they may never end and some pains feel like they may actually consume us. There are times when we all think that we’re utterly alone, but we need to remember that we’re not. There are people that you mean something to who you may not even realize you do. There are people who will always remember you when Pearl Jam comes on the radio, when they hear the word “boisterous” used properly, or when they see a silly boy, with bright pink hair, wearing a fur coat and leopard-print pants just because he can. But more importantly, there is a world of people who share similar interests with you that you haven’t even met yet. You never know when that next instant connection might happen.
I’m sharing this with all of you because I feel like it’s relevant to writing or any new adventure. I hope that you’ll take the lesson he will always help me to remember to heart: to take risks and reach out to one another whenever we can. It’s okay to be bothered. It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to be emotional and absurd. Because one right turn can change everything and one hello can mean the difference between a person making it one day or breaking. It’s so important to keep taking the risks and connecting to others, even if it ends painfully. As he would say, it’s these real connections that make us feel alive and give us purpose. They are the things we’ll always remember and smile about. They are the things that make goodbyes so hard.
Ju, I’m so sorry to say goodbye so soon, but my God am I grateful for those talks, that smile, and every laugh. Don’t tell anyone I said this, but thanks for being too cool for normal school. I might not have known you this time around if you hadn’t been.
This one’s for you.