I’m not married and I don’t have kids of my own. Someone rudely asked me a few years ago whether or not I regretted not having kids. To be honest, it wasn’t a choice. I haven’t met the right man yet, I guess, and I have never really felt a deep need to have children. I often wonder if that is partially because I’m a teacher and I see “my kids” every day at work. I’ve been working in secondary schools for fourteen years now, so I’ve taught lots and lots of students. Some of them have blurred in my memory, but a number have stayed with me, lodged deeply in my heart and mind.
This past week has been hard. The school I teach at is a fantastic all-girls school that was built in the 1950s. It’s rooted in tradition and history. I started working at Marymount in 2004, three years after I began teaching. I got my B.Ed. at the age of thirty, which is a bit late for starting in a career. A lot of teachers began in teaching, jumping right in after university. Not me. I took the long route, taking an M.A. in English, and then working at the Art Gallery of Sudbury and then the Cancer Centre. :) I graduated from Marymount in 1989. It’s been twenty-six years since I graduated! Hard to believe!
I’ve met lots of great kids over the fourteen years I’ve been teaching, both at St. Charles College and at Marymount Academy. My first year at Marymount, though, is imprinted on my memory with great clarity. I remember, on the first day, lugging too many book bags and new binders, and then falling *up* the main stairwell. It was unbelievably embarrassing! I also remember meeting a group of girls who seemed to be so well matched, like soul sisters. A number (but not all!) of them played volleyball. They were in my Grade 12 English class. Here is what I remember of them, as a group: they were spirited, extremely funny and very brilliant. They weren’t afraid of taking risks in their lives, didn’t have parents who helicoptered in every five minutes, and had the biggest hearts I’ve ever encountered. There are so many excellent stories I could tell you, but there are almost too many, and I kind of want to keep those memories to myself.
This past weekend, I lost my first student. Other teacher friends who have lost past students have told me how those losses have affected them, but I couldn’t understand until it happened. The news came over Facebook, in a message from another former student. I was shocked, and couldn’t stop shaking for two hours. Deidre was one of the first girls I taught all of those years ago at Marymount. They cluster together in my heart….and I have the sincere pleasure of working alongside one of them, Brittany, as a colleague now. To hear that Deidre had died, and in a shocking snowmobile accident, seemed surreal. Even now, as I write this, tears rise up and I shake without warning.
My memories of Deidre are many. I will always hold them dear. I remember her bright smile, her laugh, and her kind heart. That first year at Marymount, she created a small book of poems for me, with a cover made of Christmas paper and a note thanking me for being her teacher. She and I shared Irish heritage, so we often talked about that in conversations before or after classes. We stayed in touch via Facebook over the last decade, and I watched her marry and have two little boys. She went to school and then became an ECE with our Board. She was living her life with great joy, reveling in the wonder of what her boys said or did, posting it all on Facebook and letting us all take part in her spirited life. In every photo, she smiled. In every photo, others smiled with her. She was that kind of girl…a girl who became a grand woman, and a woman who pulled you into her presence of joy and love of life. On the last day of school that year, as she was graduating, she began to cry in the gym. I’ll never forget that day. I was standing next to her, so I offered her a hug. “I don’t want to leave,” she told me. “I love it here.” I hugged her tight and told her what I so often tell our girls: “Once a Regal, always a Regal.” I, after all, had gone to school at Marymount and then returned to teach there. It’s in my blood. The values I learned at Marymount, through the Sisters of St. Joseph and my teachers, well, they are a large part of what makes me who I am today.
Two weeks ago, Deidre posted a beautiful photo of herself on Facebook. I messaged her and told her that she had grown up beautifully, inside and out. Within a brief period of time, she messaged me back and told me that I had made a big impact in her life. Reading that, two weeks ago, well, it made me get weepy. Sometimes, as a teacher, you don’t really know the impact you’ve made, so, when a student you resonated with tells you so, years later, well, it hits you in the heart. Hearing of her death last Sunday morning left me listless, shoveling the driveway with tears in my eyes, mopping the floor, making supper. She just never left me on that first day.
This week has been hard. I hope to never lose another student of mine. They don’t stop being ‘my kids’ even if they’ve grown up and married and had kids of their own. They stay in my heart. I watch them grow, post photos of their families, hear news of joys and sorrows, and pray for them all. I even get Christmas cards, mailed from far off places. So, while I don’t have kids of my own, my kids, especially my girls from Marymount, are my own. Even if they don’t know it, I keep them in my prayers while I teach them, and afterwards, as they move forward in their lives. I love to see how they blossom and grow.
Tonight, I’m wondering where the purpose is in all of this….as I often do when awful things happen. I wonder why this has happened. It so hurts my heart to think of her husband and two little boys. It hurts my heart to think of her family, especially her mum, and of her dearest friends, who loved her so very deeply. The pain in that funeral home, and in the church, was palpable. I’ve been thinking a lot about The Little Prince, and of how much of that story speaks to the power of the spirit and of the unseen world. Antoine de Saint Exupery wrote: “In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night.” I can’t imagine anything other than this for Deidre. She deserves the very joy that she embodied in life. I know God walks with her, as always, and I know that she will never leave my heart for as long as I live.
Teaching, it seems I’ve learned more painfully this week, isn’t just about having a career; it’s a vocation, a calling to help guide kids so they evolve and grow, so that they question and think, so that they love themselves and others, and so that they give all of themselves to the world by living fully. Deidre did all this and more. In her message to me two weeks ago, I was reminded that, even though they go off into the world, and even if I don’t see them all very often in person, they are part of me, and of who I’ve become in the last fourteen years. They have become my teachers in so many ways….and how blessed I feel to have encountered them all.
I’m keeping Deidre, her family and her friends so close to me in my heart and in my prayers these days. It is all I can do.