It was a scene I would never forget from last fall.
I was on the blacktop basketball courts for my Monday morning duty when one of the guys from my homeroom class came over to me to strike up a conversation.
He was a quiet young man … kinda sheepish in his expressions. He hardly made eye contact except at the end of sentences. I guess he was checking for responses before continuing. A very humble, unassuming young man in need of a listening ear.
“Mr. Lawrence, guess what happened yesterday?” he said.
I replied, “I don’t know … you saw a great football game? Went to the movies with a friend? Went hunting?”
“No,” he paused before continuing, “My Dad died yesterday.”
His voice never quivered and his eyes remained down.
This young man was so emotionless, I could not read him.
Was he playing with me?
I mean, I just met his Dad for the first time last week at Open House. He was a kind, unassuming gentleman who was a teacher at a high school in our county. How is it that you can you meet someone and less than a week later they are gone?
I thought on that.
How do you respond to that statement?
All I could manage was, “What happened?”
He told me the story of how his Dad was on a normal errand and never came home. He had a heart attack in his car in a parking lot after leaving a store. Paramedics tried to resuscitate him as he died quietly, unbeknownst to his family and in the midst of strangers.
“Why are you here today?” I asked the young man.
He looked at me blankly and said, “I didn’t know where else to go.”
After losing my Dad the year before, I understood the pain … but only through my 48 year old lenses. Facing that harsh reality at fourteen years old would have devastated me.
“You are a stronger man than I am,” I told him. I patted him on the back as he gave me an unsure smile. We walking into the building and into my classroom in total silence.
I spent the rest of my year encouraging this young man as he sought to come out of his shell a bit and began to grow into a more confident speaker. Whenever he struggled in academics or with decisions, I would always encourage him to live a life that would make his Dad proud. I gladly gave him pats on the back and as many encouraging words as I could without running the risk of them seeming forced or fake.
Today, I do not know where he is or how he is doing. All I know is that I invested as much as I could in him emotionally and intellectually for those nine months that he was in my room. I prayed for him daily with the understanding of the struggles that I was still going through processing my loss as well.
He knows the two most important things though: I support him and my door is always open to him.
Will he come back to talk? Time will only tell.
I share this story to remind you that it could be anyone one of us in either situation: the boy or the teacher.
None of us have all the answers … and that is OK.
What is required of us is to be the best person we can be to support the one hurting and in need. We need to understand that every “valley” we go through is a learning experience that is equipping us with the strength to help others as well. And, ultimately, we live our lives for the benefit of others.
“Always make other people’s lives better because you are in it,” my Dad used to always tell me.
So, here I am … a 49 year old teacher chasing that man’s ghost and living to make him proud. I have a rich repository of memories to draw from over the last four decades.
And, yet, at 1 AM I find myself still awake … thinking about and praying for the 15 year old man that is chasing his Dad’s ghost with far fewer memories to draw from … wishing him good dreams of earlier days and happier times.