On the first time you learned your student passed away

The Facebook page was eerie, like seeing the faded lettering of an erstwhile business still on the brick storefront. It said, “Remembering Francis Angelo,” and my stomach dropped. I don’t know why this student came across my mind this morning but it occurred to me I hadn’t seen him come up on my feed in recent months. I’d wondered if he had beaten cancer, gotten married, launched his own gubernatorial campaign.

But instead the timeline had ceased and all that was left in its wake were digital artifacts. A video of the thank you speech he gave at a fundraiser his friends must have thrown him before he received his transplant. It was a wonderful speech, casual but sincere-sounding, and then he pivoted and proposed to his girlfriend.

He died just weeks later. He didn’t get to run for office, using his superb writing abilities. He didn’t get to say his vows, in sickness and in health, pinned to all the hopes of  many more years of health with his beloved. I wonder if he got to see his brother come home from the Army before he passed.

I’m sure much has been written and eulogized about Frank already, so I will not heap more platitudes onto the pile. I think the part that feels heaviest to carry, though, is that he was the first student I ever had in the first class I ever taught, and he is now the first student whose death I have learned about. And I learned of his death in such an inorganic way that it was difficult to process. How he was once sitting in my class, reading texts I can no longer remember, but whose Boston accent I surely can, and how he was so young and how this was all so flipping unfair.

As a teacher, you don’t necessarily know your students better than their friends and surely not their parents, but there is something distinct about a teacher’s encounter with the people she teaches. The relationship is an evaluative one, certainly. But it is also one that must be built on trust in order to thrive, to have some measure of success. Simply by virtue of being a student, a student asks of the teacher, Will you treat me fairly, will you challenge me appropriately, will you remember me after the last grades are turned in? In turn, a teacher asks, We are going to read hard texts, will you follow me outside of what is comfortable? Do you respect me enough to listen and receive? Will you remember the things we learn long after the final grades are filed?

I came to know my students in all the ways a teacher does: discussions and tests and groveling e-mails to excuse their tardies. These are not necessarily singular to the profession of teaching, but they are privileges I enjoyed.

I want to dig up a paper Frank wrote and send it to his parents, offer them one more tactile artifact of his originality and accomplishment. But then I remember that they are his parents and their treasures are unique to the unending bond of love they have for their son.

I? Was only his teacher. What I’ve learned over many semesters in college classrooms is that this is sacred, too, in a way that maybe only a teacher can know.

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On being a grumpy protester in the Easter pageant

My pastor has asked me to lead a scene in our Easter pageant and I am grumpy about it. It’s not that I don’t like Easter pageants or directing. I’m just ill-equipped to direct this one. Work is kicking my tail, my husband has been traveling, and my kitchen is a revolving door of kindergarten shoebox dioramas. I am exhaustion covered in glitter glue.

The pastor has recruited dozens of people to take part in a silent motion stage performance of modern day resurrection scenes. The enthusiasm surrounding this Easter pageant is infectious and the opening scenes are always very powerful. But when I get an e-mail with our rehearsal schedule, I just want to drop out. I want to stay home and watch “The Great British Baking Show” on Netflix, even though I know how every season ends.

Alas, my kids are gunning hard to be in the pageant this year. Every other year I demurred thinking the day would be too long for them. My son has campaigned very hard for the last month to play the part of “Bearded Guy.” He settles for a Syrian refugee boy, but continues to ask when he is going to get to wear the beard every 4 minutes. My husband can only make part of the rehearsals due to his work schedule. This does not help my grumpiness. Nothing can help it.
Not even our pastor who is is all of a twitter about this Easter pageant.

The pastor and his family are the saltiest salt of the earth and I will follow them to the ends of the earth. But this play rehearsal, y’all. It is feeling a little extra. When we arrive at rehearsal, the pastor sells the idea of each scene to us. He is especially excited about scenes reminiscent of the recently released “Hacksaw Ridge,” the trailer from which he pulled the music for the opening.

We divide into groups and try to figure out how to portray the action. We’ve been given a skeletal script, basic notions of what we’re trying to represent. I know a few of the other actors in my scene, but I’m not entirely sure what we are supposed to accomplish and how this is supposed to play out in the seconds we’re given. The basic plot is that we are a bunch of political protesters holding signs with pithy political messages. We square off in two formations, showing angry, violent opposition to the other formation of political protesters.

Some of the actors have a vision of how we can assemble and I defer to them. Others don’t know where to enter; others are concerned that they won’t be seen. My son keeps wandering out of his scene to tug my shirt and ask me when he’s going to get his beard. For three nights in a row, I am somewhere between Syria and Washington DC, surrounded by soldiers being lowered down Hacksaw Ridge on Okinawa. None of this makes sense–especially our political scene which ends when two angels appear. Enter: cherubs. Then, the protesters throw down our political signs, hoist a huge American flag, and hug one another. Two teenage girls even snap a selfie, political opponents no more! I glance at the other scenes and I can recognize the true beauty that rises from the ashes of refugee camps and tragic school bus crashes and wartime heroics. But our scene just feels hokey.

At the end of practice, I make sure the American flag we use as a prop isn’t left on the ground. I drape the flag over a church pew. As I arrive at rehearsal each successive night, the flag has been folded neatly and lovingly into a triangular formation. It becomes my obsession, keeping the flag lifted and not falling on the stage where it can be trampled.

As the final rehearsal finishes, I am proud of my little group of protesters. We have worked hard to get our scene right. As the angels emerge from out of the darkness, we’re all in position and the flag is where it needs to be. The “Hacksaw Ridge” trailer music queues like nightmare on loop. I don’t know how we are going to do this for 13 consecutive performances. I text our pastor and his wife. “When do we get to debrief about this?” The pastor replies that the best part of this is not the performance but the chance to build community. I feel bad for being one more grumpy church lady he has to deal with.

We are up at 6a the day of the pageant for makeup. My hubby and kids are sponged and dusted with cocoa powder and make for convincing refugees. My pack of protesters are outfitted in our best patriotic garb: tattoos, bandanas, red trucker hats that say “Make America Great Again.” In between scenes, I get to know the protesters who are students of nursing and psychology; single mothers and new drivers; socially liberal singers; former members of the police reserves who just like to carry guns.

I am barely awake for the first few performances but by 11a.m., the church is packed to standing room only. Cheers cry out for Desmond Doss as he climbs Hacksaw Ridge to save “just one more,” and it all comes crashing down on me and the tears come and they just keep coming. The flag that we raise and the ladder that the soldier climbs are not mutually exclusive as symbols go. In fact, they are the same. This is not mixing religion and politics–trust.


Christ came to save us all: the tattooed and the trucker hatted; the schoolbus driver and the new teen driver; the gun-toting soldier and the refugee. He would not let one fall to the ground without regarding it as precious. Not a sparrow falls without his notice. In the same vein, this flag that we revere, the one we cannot let fall to the ground, is one for which blood was shed so that all could enjoy freedom. What could be freer than love? Freedom and love are regularly compromised and trampled on the battlefield for our hearts, but the war has already been won by the One.

We throw down our signs as we throw down our crowns. And his name shall be Emmanuel, God with us.

photos by Andy Nash.

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The most expensive T-shirt I own

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I didn’t buy this t-shirt nor did it come with a price tag affixed. But I know that it’s the most expensive piece of clothing I own.

I don’t treat it as such. I don’t handle it gingerly, afraid that it might tear at the seams or unravel at the edges. I don’t wash it irregularly so that its painted letters don’t quickly fade. In fact, I wear it often and with pride because, as I mentioned, it is the most valuable piece of clothing I own.

When I was a youth worker for the City of Boston, I served every day at a community center in a neighborhood I had never been to before, not even driven through once. I didn’t know anyone who lived there, in the patchwork of tidy triple-deckers and eateries that ranged from Salvadorean pupusa shops to Italian eateries to Chinese restaurants to Vietnamese pho houses. The neighborhood comprised effectively an island and most of the kids who grew up there knew one another. They confessed they didn’t bother skipping school because someone would see them on the corner and call their mother.

Most of the youth I worked with lived in a housing development complex. I had never visited a housing development, never walked through the block after block of unimaginatively designed structures and marveled at how there was no green space, how there were so many children living throughout the complex and yet there was no space for them to play that was not concrete.

So the kids came to the community center where I was based, where I did a job for which I received no training, in a place I wasn’t so much as even acquainted with, with a population of kids whose lives were unfathomably different than anything I had known. In my arrogance, I thought that I was the good thing that had come their way. A college graduate, a creative program person, a self-proclaimed lover of kids.

I did everything wrong. I presumed when I should have asked. I got angry when I should have laughed. I muscled through on my own when I should have sought help. Most of the programs I ran were a bust. The boys humored me, the girls came and asked me questions about sex. I thought I had what they needed, if I could just organize a better program of activities. If only they would come every day, I could meet their needs. My bosslady was so patient with me. She would say, “The only problem with you is that yaw not from heeyah.” I laughed and only sort of knew what she meant. I started asking a music shop if they would let me take their leftover sample CDs to give away as prizes. The kids started looking at me like a prize dispenser, popping them out like Pez. I made $22,000 a year before taxes. I still thought it was about me.

During an outdoor program I organized, there were a ton of water balloons which, since these were teenagers, became a ton of water buckets filled and thrown. I didn’t have a change of clothes. Someone handed me this Mayor’s Cup t-shirt, one from a stack that were just hanging around in the closet.

By the time I was a year into the job, I knew that I would be getting married, that I would be moving on. I took the LSAT with my co-worker Kamau. We knew we couldn’t stay making the money we were making. We wanted to do the most good.

After I got back from my honeymoon, I started interviewing for other jobs. I had deferred law school but I still wanted get home earlier in the day to spend time with my hew husband. I soon found 9-5 administrative job that I could walk to from our apartment.

On my last day working at the community center, I had not wanted to make a big deal about my departure. I wasn’t sad that I was leaving, but I was sad that I wouldn’t see how the kids would grow. I wouldn’t know who went to college and who had a growth spurt over the summer. I wouldn’t hear their voices change and watch their girlfriends change and offer to drive them home when they didn’t have enough change for the bus fare.

On my last day, only one kid came back to say good-bye. He had been by far one of the hardest kids to reach. He hated school and just wanted to play basketball. He seemed to break one girl’s heart on Monday and have found a new one to break by Tuesday. I didn’t understand his goals; I didn’t understand how I could help him.

But he came back to say good-bye. He sat with me in the office, his pristine baseball hat with the manufacturer’s silver sticker still on the underside of the wide brim. He looked up from under that wide brim and asked me about my plans. I told him I thought I’d probably go back to school so that I could eventually teach. He nodded and bounced a basketball under the table. We hugged it out and he went to go shoot hoops.

Whenever I wear my Mayor’s Cup t-shirt, I think of what it represents. I think how it was handed to me when I had nothing else to wear because I was a pilgrim. I remember how hard it was to earn respect as a pilgrim. I think how I’d never had to learn how to love kids who were hard to love before. I remember how after nearly two years, they returned that love to me. At least one did. He handed it to me like it was a free t-shirt. One that I would be so grateful to receive, one that still makes me feel so privileged and proud, not only because I got to love but was loved well in the end.

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