I have been to both too many and too few student funerals.
Too many, because five of my former students have died in the past ten years, and too few, because I only made it to four of them.
I hate funerals--I mean, we all do. But I don’t just hate funerals--I struggle with them, because they are a seizure trigger for me. My husband, the gold-hearted Eagle Scout, always goes to funerals, always wants to pay his respects, so I reluctantly go along, but I can’t tell you how many times we have been waiting in a receiving line and he has had to put his hand on my arm, trying but failing to calm the involuntary tremor there. I understand how important it is to go, how much it means to the family of the deceased, but funerals are hard.
My brain tends to short-circuit at the idea that it could turn on itself at any second.
Funerals force me to face my own mortality, to realize how precious and fragile life is, how impossibly possible it is to leave this world with unfinished business, leaving behind a family and a to-do list, plane tickets for a vacation to Hawaii, a dentist appointment, concert tickets, a refrigerator full of produce, an overdue library book lying open on the nightstand next to a cold cup of tea.
Attending the funerals for students that I taught is especially hard. I spent hours with these kids--178 hours a year (sometimes 356 hours a year, if they were lucky enough to have my classes twice a day), and I had some of them for three straight years. It’s hard to not think of them as family. I accompanied them on field trips. I chaperoned their dances. I went to their basketball games.
One of the blessings of teaching is watching students grow and mature beyond high school, seeing the sprawl of their lives, where they go, what they choose to become. It is a gift to watch them grow into the adults you always knew they could become--watching them get jobs and become parents. It is extremely hope-giving to watch this transformation unfurl like the petals of a vibrant and unexpected flower.
But sometimes those flowers brown and wither before they can bloom.
A girl from the GHEC class of 2009 died nearly two weeks ago, a victim of blastomycosis. She was 28, but she will live forever in my memory as a blonde 17-year-old who was vibrant and funny, simultaneously smart and ditzy, generous with kindness and joy--she dressed as Rainbow Bright one Halloween, and that’s exactly what she was--everyone liked her. She was always drawing funny cartoons and giving them to people. It feels both irreverent and holy to mention that one of my strongest memories of her was the time she accidentally flushed her cell phone down the toilet during my class--it was so her to do that, and the memory still brings a (now bittersweet) smile to my face. I still have one of the drawings she made for me.
A 2013 graduate--who was only a student of mine for a couple weeks before a schedule change put him in another section--took his own life in 2018. This is the one student funeral I couldn’t make it to, and I wish that I had been able to go. His death sent shockwaves through the district. This kid was so nice. To everyone. So was his brother. No one saw it coming, and I regret not being able to attend.
In 2017, a boy from the GHEC class of 2015 died in a motorcycle accident. I’ll always remember how tall he was, how he barely fit in the tiny desks in my classroom, but how he still managed to get comfortable enough to fall asleep. In spite of that, he cared about his grades, and he really did try. I remember that whenever I asked the class a question, he would always be the one student to take pity on me (after a good 90 seconds of silence) and throw me an answer to get the conversation rolling.
A boy who graduated in 2008 passed in a car accident in 2015. He spent a lot of time in my classroom his senior year, and he earned his diploma by the skin of his teeth, due largely to the dedication of a woman who took him under her wing and made sure that he turned in every piece of work he was assigned. (He wasn’t stupid. Lazy, and perhaps a bit defiant, but definitely not stupid.) He was arguably the biggest fan of GHEC Mustang basketball in school history, and his state tournament chant leading skills were legendary. When he wasn’t dressed in school colors, he was wearing blue jeans, blaze orange, and camouflage, and he acted tough, but underneath it all, he was sensitive and sweet. I’ll never forget the way he sat on the edge of my shelving unit on the last day of his senior year, tears streaming down his cheeks as he read the letter I had given to him, nodding in agreement to the affirmations I had written. His death was so hard--so tragic, so sudden. He left behind a fiancee and daughter. His surrogate mother has now become a surrogate grandmother to his daughter, and she still senses his presence in eagles that soar across the sky.
A boy from the class of 2007 drowned in 2009. Even now, I remember him vividly, walking down the halls in green Chuck Taylors, a shit-eating grin forever on his face. He somehow got a hold of my cell phone number, and it was not unusual for me to get prank calls at 3 a.m. from a number that I later learned was his. But he was good to me--he revamped my classroom podium, transforming that weathered, paint-chipped monstrosity into a masterpiece of school spirit--sleek, glossy black with the letters “GHEC” in gold running down the base. He put a new top on it, and he gave me the old top with a piece of rope attached, signed with his name. It hung in the back of my classroom for years, and other students added their names to his, a collection of autographs. Ten years later, I still have that piece of wood, hanging in my office at home, a tribute to his memory.
Funerals are the absolute worst way to reconnect with people. As much as I love to run into my former students, to see where the rivers of their lives wend, I hate that I have seen most of them at a classmate’s funeral, that it takes a tragedy to bring us together.
“Of course you would come,” one of them--now 28 years old, a mother herself--said as she saw me approach at this last funeral.
My heart soared at the implication as she smiled and pulled me into a hug.
Funerals are a sobering reminder that life is random and unfair and unpredictable. They have a way of shaking up our perspectives until the important settles out from the unimportant, until the small stuff and the big things no longer seem to carry the same weight. Funerals are a last chance, of sorts--or, rather, a first chance come too late. They are a chance to say goodbye to someone who is not there to hear the words. They are a chance to acknowledge--too late--that a person’s life truly mattered. They are a chance to see how that person touched lives and made an impact. They are a chance to admit our own love, evidenced by our grief.
They are a chance for us to examine ourselves and the trajectory of our own lives.
As much as I hate funerals, as much as I hate confronting my own mortality and the inevitability of death and my dysfunctional brain, I want to be known as someone who cares enough to go anyway. I want to be someone who values life now, before it’s too late. I want to be someone who sees and acknowledges the good in others while they are still alive to hear my words.
I do not want my first chance to come too late.