One of my favorite students ever was Elizabeth Johnson.
She was such a favorite that even now, seven years after her funeral, typing the word was brings immediate tears. She was a member of my all-time favorite class–a class that was hysterically funny, clever, and determined.They loved to laugh, and they were charmers, all. Now, as I call roll mentally, after almost every child’s name, I think, “She/he was a character.” They rollicked through the days–everything they did was fun. My room was spared from their senior prank, save a huge wooden jack-o’-lantern sitting in my chair. (One of the girls conspiratorially whispered, “We left you the jack-o’-lantern because we thought you’d think it was funny!” They were right.)
Elizabeth was special. If I summed up why, listed her good qualities, talked about our one-on-one chats, and wrote of her beauty, it would seem I was glorifying and idealizing. I wouldn’t be; I’d be telling the truth. I adored her; she was one of the students whose future I could see, the path clear: college, med school, a career in pediatrics. I could see her whole, successful life.
And then she was gone. Away at college, a victim of a car crash.
Gone: unfathomable. (Still.)
I found myself, days later, standing in a funeral home, talking to her father. Elizabeth had written a particularly good journal entry years before about a perfect day visiting him on his blueberry farm. A good writer, she’d captured talking with him, spending the day on the dirt roads with her sister and him–the simple joy of a regular day with her dad. It was all there, on paper: her love for him, the farm, and life itself, expressed well enough that I remembered it years later. Pathetically, I tried to share it with her dad, knowing that the journal entry, which I’d returned to her, had likely been thrown away, seen as just another daily grade–when it would now be treasure.
I don’t recall a conscious decision, but the next year, I found myself marking journals that talked about parental kindness and love with “C” for “copy” in the upper left corner and marking the grades on the back. These entries went immediately to the copy machine and then the copies were shoved in my bottom desk drawer. Never again would I have to hazily recollect for parents the words of their children: the parents would know–they would read them themselves, these sweet surprises in the mail. Reminders that their children, under all that bravado, truly love them.
I mail them in May, around the anniversary of Elizabeth’s death. Entries that are honest and plain: “I went back home and my stepdad taught me how to parallel park, and I realized that a lot of people don’t have a great dad like that.” “I’ve always loved going on dates with my dad.” “I am so grateful for my stepdaddy for everything he does for us. He protects us, he loves us, and he makes sure we get everything we need.” “My dad would do anything for me . . most kids would kill for the dad I have.””My dad stood me up but my stepdaddy said to never be sad because your real dad wasn’t there because I will always have him.” “It was fun to finally hang out with her on her day off. No work. No school. Just me and Mama.”
I may have inadvertently discarded one father’s memories, but I now save the words of love that parents need to hear. Things they need to know and remember. Reminders of how truly rich they are.
And I remain ever glad that I knew Elizabeth Nicole Johnson, who taught me so much.