Fifteen years ago, I was just wrapping up my second month of teaching ever. I had somehow managed to only feel like I was going to get fired twice and like I should quit ten or eleven times. Those numbers would increase as my ego outstripped my ability.
I would talk often to friends I had made while in my teacher licensure program. They always seemed sympathetic, but not overly surprised. I was never supposed to be one of the ones who was good at this. In our group of slightly over twenty, there were three or four people that everyone knew would be great teachers. They were organized and talented; they did and understood all the readings for class, they didn’t have three beers during lunch breaks between classes (look, my dad died that year. I wasn’t at my best). They were all the things I was not.
One of those teachers, the obvious superstar teachers, has been on my mind this week. I always thought Erik looked a little like the movie version of me. He was like half a foot taller and at least three feet more handsome. His long hair and goofy smile made me underestimate him at first, but by the end of our program, I knew any time he put his hand up to speak something amazing was about to happen. He wasn’t one of my closer friends in the program, but if there was a gathering of six or so of us, our circles would overlap.
He moved to California shortly after graduation to teach, and was never really into facebook, so whatever connection we had drifted pretty far apart.
I found out he died, a couple years ago, through a group text started by someone else in the program. It was in the middle of the day, and I saw the message between classes, giving me about two minutes to process the information before I had to try to teach. One student, one of those students who wields their empathy like a super-power, didn’t even set his books down on his desk before asking me what was wrong. I told him, and he said he was sorry, and I didn’t have anything else to say.
I think about him sometimes, when I hear about teacher shortages, or when stories come across my timeline of teachers who do something stupid or awful. I take a breath of mourning for the years of living he should still have had, for all the good we missed out on, for a great teacher lost.
Erik’s been on my mind this week. I got a message on twitter from someone who taught with him in California. He talked about the loss it had been to the entire community, and most especially the students in the school. Erik’s colleague had just finished my book, had some kind things to say about it, and mentioned that the book he read was Erik’s copy, annotated, that had been gifted to him at some point.
I had no idea he had ever read it, ever had it. Would never had thought there was this thing out there, this thing I had written and Erik had written in, his thoughts on my thoughts scribbled in the margins. For all I know, his annotations are entirely focused on how full of shit I am (which wouldn’t be wrong), but knowing it’s there, out there somewhere, really shook me this week.
After the message, I was heading into a meeting that would normally have pissed me off, and there were some negative comments left by a student on an assignment I saw after that, and then a night of working, sitting long enough that pains shot across my back like lightning strikes.
It’s not like none of those things mattered, but it was like the brightness had been turned down on everything frustrating, and turned way up on delightfully odd writing my students were doing, on the laughing we did together, on my colleagues dressing up for videos and recording every reading so that students had audio if they needed it.
It was a good week to feel what matters, to remember what we have before it’s gone, to give space to what we’ve lost.