Over 15 years ago, I was barely 22 years old and it was my first year teaching. Over the summer, I had gotten word that two students who would be juniors that year had died in a car accident. I was reminded that the wounds would be fresh for our students as the year began. One morning in August, the school started the day with a prayer service in their memory. And just a few periods later, my juniors, whom I had barely started to know, filed into my math class. All morning I had been struggling with what to say or do because I knew this would be a difficult day for them. I didn’t, at 22, know the words that would take their pain away… though I so desperately wanted to find them. I sat on a stool in the front of the class at a loss, my heart aching for them and the students I would never get to know. I also was profoundly aware that these young women in my class had already lost a friend and classmate their freshman year unexpectedly as well. So much loss at so young an age, and I was supposed to be there to help them through it… barely 4 years their senior and someone who could not say truthfully “I know how you must feel.”
After a couple awkward moments, I gave up on finding words and pulled a rosary out of my pocket. I said honestly “I don’t have the words, but in the absence of those, I’d like to pray a decade of the rosary for your friends. And then, we can start class. You can join me or be with me in spirit.” I remember I spent that whole decade thinking – “Am I making the right choice? I barely know these students. What do they want from me?” but still I kept on… Hail Mary after Hail Mary, a lone voice in a silent room. Then, I put away my rosary, and shakily began class.
All these years I have kept my first students and the memory of that particular class in my mind. They have all grown and many have started families of their own…. junior year a distant but perhaps poignant memory in their minds and hearts.
And I, even now over 15 years later with three kids of my own, still wonder if I would’ve handled that moment differently at this stage of life. Would I have been able to find the words now that I just couldn’t then? Henri Nouwen, a profound theologian who also died way too soon, gave me some wisdom from the grave a few years back on this very idea of words… he said:
“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”Henri Nouwen, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life
So maybe it’s not about the words… there will never be the right ones after all… maybe it’s just about continuing to show up and let God do the rest.
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43)