A Letter to My Student: Dear J (4th grade)

(Over the holidays, and maybe beyond, I want to write candid letters to students I have had. Some I have taught for a day, some for a year. These are things I wish I could have or would have said to them. An arbitrary initial has been chosen to ensure privacy. The grade is when I taught them. )

Dear J,

When I had you in my class, I was young. I was new at this teaching thing and I stumbled through it poorly. You were young. You were new at this being a human thing and you stumbled through it without much help from me. Being on this side of things, I see how I dropped the ball with you.

I am sorry. It was easy for me to feel empathy with students who were visibly falling apart in front of me. You hid it and I didn’t press in. I gave them more grace than I gave you because I assumed you were just trying to push buttons or cause problems.

Now I know better. Partly because I know you better. You needed me more than I realized. You even called me out on that when you were in 4th grade. That is hard to do. It took courage. I was very proud of you. I wish I had been a better man and role model for you.

I am very grateful you reached out to me later and shared with me that your mom was dying. Here we are, months later, and you are entering your first Christmas without your mom. I have not checked in with you like I should have, and I am sorry.

Here’s what I know: this is going to be hard. You are going to want to be tough and prove that you are man enough to make it through. You’re not. None of us are. People are not made to ‘get over it.’ We are made to love people and unfortunately we lose those people and it hurts like hell. We are made to grieve. To get angry, and cry, and yell, and curl up in a ball. Sometimes to feel nothing, or laugh, or move on, or remember.

My prayer for you is that you find hope in the midst of your grief, that you feel man enough to cry when you need to, and that you become the kind of man your mom wanted you to be. And when you fail, as you will because you’re human, I pray that you will reach out to me, or someone like me… someone who cares about you. Tell us what is hard. And then let us walk with you as you figure out this mess we call life.


Your former teacher, Mr. Johnson



A few months ago, my grandma gave me her violin. She learned to play on it as a girl. She taught my mom to play on it. Mom tried to teach me.

When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate music and musical skills like I do now. Now that I am an adult with responsibilities and no free time, I have decided to take on the task of learning a new instrument. Earlier today, my friend helped me get the fingerboard taped and the strings adjusted so I could start.

She shared something that fascinated me. Violins take on the sound of the person that plays them. The way I make the strings resonate will be different than anyone else. And as those unique vibrations move through the wood, it will, over time, change the way the violin plays.

This evening I sat looking at the violin. I was having a rough day, so I was emotional, but I wasn’t dwelling on anything in particular. I just held it the way you might hold a bottle of wine to read the label, and looked.

It’s well loved. It’s been in existence for nearly 100 years and has been played by many hands in that time. You can tell by looking at the body. And then a thought struck me. In a way, my grandma and my mom are both in this violin. Their playing uniquely changed it. As I learn to play, I am sharing in something special with both of them. And it is likely the last significant thing I will share with my mom this side of heaven.

Now, to start actually playing…

Expecting a Death Notice

With the death of Muhammad Ali, many people are grieving and rightly so. I came across an article today asking “Is 2016 the year of celebrity death?”

That headline took me aback. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps because it wrongly (in my opinion) ascribes more significance to the death of celebrities. Perhaps because it seems as though the most significant thing this author is grieving is the death or people who were not directly a part of her life. Sure they had influenced her, but they never babysat her. They never played games with her. They never built memories and shared experiences together.

The author shared the following tweet:

Every time I see a celeb trend, I expect a death notice. 2016, this is what you’ve done to me.              -@zantetsuken76

My initial response was eye rolling. Then I had to check myself… people’s emotional connection to celebrities can vary in significance.

I came to the realization that I rolled my eyes because I have been expecting a death notice since I was 13.

I’m a fatalist. I’m a pessimist. I assume the worst outcome is the most likely and it can’t be overcome. In the past I have often visualized myself in scenarios where members of my family, friends, or coworkers die to mentally test myself in how I would respond. Would I have the courage to stop a gunman? Would I have the discipline to work multiple jobs to help take care of my brothers? What would it feel like to help my roommate’s parents sort though his possessions?

Morbid, I know. But that’s apparently one of the ways my mind needed to cope with my mom’s death.

Phone calls at weird hours were assumed to be bad news, so when my dad called after 11:00pm on a week night, I assumed it was bad news.

It was. And as shocking as it was to hear that my brother had died, it was almost like I expected it. I had rehearsed so many of these scenes in my head, it was not the punch in the gut like I assumed it would be. It was much slower than that, taking months or years to really sink in. The result of expecting death is that when death comes, you are so emotionally prepared for it that you don’t emote anything.

I envy people who do not have an expectation of death. And I long to repossess that innocence.