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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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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2016 recap

I like the rhythm of asking myself the same questions over and over again, so here’s the survey I usually do at EOY.

1. What did you do in 2016 that you’d never done before?
The two biggest newnesses were:
a.) Starting a new job in marketing at a private school.
b.) Spending Thanksgiving at Tybee.

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Also memorable this past year were:
Surprising my old man upon his reception of the Bellarmine Award.
Watching Loverpants get sworn in as an American citizen
Watching my brother-in-law get remarried in a beautiful garden wedding.
Taking a couple of weeks to see my parents this summer, just the kids and I.
Reconnecting with my cousin Carrie and sharing in the joy of her pregnancy.

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2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
I tried so hard to focus on nutrition and staying injury free. I fully embraced cold-pressed juice as part of my lifestyle and I did pretty well to stay injury free. I ran 2 5ks (one in TN, one in GA). I am still overweight but I can’t let myself get too sad about it.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Congrazzles to Carrie on welcoming Murphy Sloane! #birfmurph
Totally enamored of little Nika Joy, too, the daughter of my friend Kessia Reyne.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
I’m extra grateful to answer no this year.

5. What would you like to have in 2017 that you lacked in 2016?
Time to write, write, write for pleasure.

6. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Opening my Etsy shop. It has connected me meaningfully to a craft that I enjoy and to a community that uplifts me + other makers.

7. What was your biggest failure?
My book deal fell apart after a year of working and waiting. I see it as a failure of a small publisher that bit off more than it could chew. I suppose I failed to pursue other avenues but I can’t change what I didn’t know.

8. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Earlier in the year, I spent a lot of time at the acupuncturist for a foot injury. Good times.

9. What was the best thing you bought?
I purchased a student membership to the Modern Calligraphy Summit. Game changer.

10. What did you get really excited about?
I thought the DNC was a remarkable showcase of the Democratic party’s strength. Loved speeches by my future BFF Michelle Obama, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm.
Also was surprised by “Stranger Things” on Netflix.

11. What was the best book you read this year?

Fiction: Peace Like a River, Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice
Non-Fiction: Loitering: New and Collected Essays, Falling Free: Rescued from the Life I Always Wanted

12. Compared to this time last year, are you:
– happier or sadder? I have a lot to be happy about
– thinner or fatter? Fatter
– richer or poorer? Paid down some debt, so…woop!

13. What was your favorite TV program?
This is Us
Stranger Things

14. What was your favorite music from this year?
https://affiliate-program.amazon.com/home/productlinks/customize?asin=B00U0YD5L2&request_source=quicklinks&subflow=sp_
The Hamilton Mixtape (Edited)
CAN’T STOP THE FEELING! (Original Song From DreamWorks Animation’s ”Trolls”)

15. What were your favorite films of the year?
Really wasn’t able to catch as many films as we would have liked. I know we saw “Race” in the theater.
I think “13th” on Netflix should be required viewing for every American.
Zootopia was important.

16. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
On my 36th birthday, I had a great weekend. My hubby got me some wonderful books and took the kids and me to a new favorite for brunch.

17. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2016.
The depths to which people are capable of furthering evil are staggering, but not as great as they are able to achieve reconciliation. And that’s beautiful to me.

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Halloween 2016

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