TO BE A STUDENT (revised)
Last Spring my wife and I drove to Mitchell’s elementary school to collect his personal and school belongings. The air was cold and the sky was wrapped in a dull, grey blanket of clouds that seemed to match the mood of things. As we approached the school I reflected on all of the amazing teachers and staff who had done so much to support and love our family and I was overcome with gratitude. There was no coldness in my heart.
I was doing okay until his teacher reached for a file box that contained everything that was Mitchells. In an instant, I was overcome by strong emotions and I did all that I could to hold back a massive surge of tears. Tears came anyway. My hands trembled and my body quaked as I quietly gasped for air. The pain of this moment was palpable.
There, in a cardboard box, were items that to a stranger would have no value. But to us, its contents were priceless: a plastic container filled with pencils and crayons that Mitchell collected, a name tag, pieces of paper with his handwriting … a potpourri of elementary school artifacts that to me were more valuable than all the treasures of ancient Egypt.
As Mitchell’s teacher (Mrs. Masina) handed the box to Natalie she gave her a hug. I stood a few feet away fighting back the tears, doing all that I could to keep composed. All I wanted to do was curl up in a corner and sob. This compassionate teacher described how much Mitchell meant to her and that she loved him – it was clear that she was hurting, too. With a broken voice she admitted handing the box over to us was difficult because she loved Mitch and she felt like she was giving part of her heart away.
After Mitchell passed away she had each student write down their memories of him and carefully laminated, then bound the pages into a book. Each page was thoughtfully authored from his peers; each page was personal and authentic. Mitchell was universally referred to by his classmates as kind, deeply caring, fun to be with and humble. Reading through these hand written letters and drawings from 5th Graders, I learned quite a bit about Mitch. I also learned a lot about 5th graders … especially what they notice. I was reminded of one of my favorite sayings: “Oh what a tangled web do parents weave when they think their children are naive.” In reading their observations it was clear these young children were reflective, thoughtful and keen observers. These young students were my teacher and I have been taking notes.
After we collected Mitchell’s desk belongings we went to the front office to get his scooter, which was charging in the Principals supply room. As I unplugged his scooter I noticed a collection of sports day ribbons hanging from his handlebar, evidence my little boy strived to achieve and won. He hung those ribbons from his scooter as a reminder to himself he could do hard things. I was so proud of Mitch and wished he was sitting there so I could hug him and tell him what a great boy he was. But he was not there and nor would he ever be; never had a chair seemed so empty.
This painful but gentle exchange between Mitchell’s mother and school teacher was a gentle reminder education is more than academics – that knowledge without humanity is hollow. The best teachers also teach what it means to be human – not by what they say, but who they are. Mrs. Masina taught humanity and love beautifully … and so did her students.
So here we stand on the other side of Mitchell’s education … and suddenly we are students of the hardest lesson life has to teach. Our homework, invisible to the eye, must be worked out in quiet of the mind and heart. What we take and learn from our hardships is engraved in our soul and shapes what we become. I get the impression the homework of grief will take a lifetime to complete.
When I look at this photo and see an empty-handed mother leaving our son’s school, I am reminded there is a classroom none of us leave alive.
Sometimes we are teachers … but we are always students.