Life is so full of moments, both Chronos and Kairos: awakenings, amazing moments, incomprehensible reality, and, of course, Death (I will allow her an UPPERCASE letter as a sign of respect). We tend to go on our merry ways through life not really noticing how all of those moments come to collide or bounce off one another as we go through the years; as we mature and prepare for the end.
This post is not going to be about that. It may reflect a somewhat serious undertone; however, I would like to think it’s more on the, ‘Wowwwwww, cooooool, and ‘#dafuk . That being said, just sit back, spark up the vaper or brew your caffeine-free tea of choice and come for the ride.
I have never written about this part of my life. Even though I have volumes of leather-bound journals and assorted ‘special’ books in which to document my life, this never made it to print….not even a smidgen of a reference to this time of my life.
I was between universities at the time. It was 1981. I had finished my BA and just begun my BEd. when I realized that I was not happy with the status quo. I didn’t feel that I belonged at the university where I had enrolled. I wasn’t sure I was getting what I liked from my courses, so I withdrew after having completed the first semester. I waited out the academic year and in the fall enrolled in, what I expected to be, an ideal university for me. Bingo! Paydirt! I loved it! Saint Mary’s University was where I was going to complete my Bachelor of Education.
As a result of having taken the second semester off, I had time on my hands. Time to give. I was gainfully employed with VIA Rail and doing well financially, so giving was my goal. Pay it forward!
My giving took form: Itinerant Teacher at the Teen Lounge of the IWK Grace Maternity Hospital in Halifax. My training as a volunteer was rather quick and intense; however, I felt inspired and scared by the situation and looked forward to my one-to-one relationship with Jonathan. I was his ‘Math Teacher’, but knew nothing about real teaching. I had been in some interesting roles before this, but let’s remember….I was 21. I was trying to figure out if I really wanted to be a teacher, and my work with Jonathan was meant to enlighten me. It did! I loved it! Then and there I realised that I would be a good teacher.
It was during my volunteer training that I was honest enough to ask the Supervisor of Volunteer Services (or whatever it was called then) if she had any resources or advice to give in terms of the task ahead of me. We will call her Shirley, only because I really don’t remember her name. I remember her, though. She was an inspiring person, an ‘A-Ha!’ for me. She explained to me that she was not a teacher, but she shared with me three very important mantras that I have kept with me since I started teaching.
Shirley was gruff. She smoked a thousand cigarettes a day and had a little bit of blood in her caffeine system, if you get the picture. ‘Son’, she said in a gruff-kind of voice, ‘with kids, it’s like this: Talk to them in a way that they’ll know that they matter to ya’. And as she took a long drag of her ‘Export A’, she coughed out, ‘and MEAN IT!’. Her eyes were watering, but I am not sure if it was because of her smoking-induced coughing fit, or if she was getting emotional. It was obvious that the last titbit of advice was her main message. She looked straight at me and kindly said, ‘…and be there for them-to help them grow . Everybody needs to grow, even if they are dying.’
Shirley meant business in her chat, but I didn’t really take it as orders or a proverbial Riot Act. She simply thought that I was listening to her. And I was. It was immediately afterwards when I was introduced to my student, Jonathan. Jonathan was 13 and he was a permanent fixture in the Teen Lounge, be if for his lessons or just to hang out and do other things. Unfortunately for him, hanging out and doing other things meant chemo, blood work, rest, and forcing himself to eat. He often had night terrors. Jonathan was terminally ill and knew it. I had a feeling that Jonathan was not from Halifax. I never found out.
The very first meeting with him was brief but meaningful. My very first evening back on York Street was spent thinking, ‘how am I going to help this boy grow? He’s ready to die!’ I had no idea that this was going to be my task. The next day I was able to get past Shirley’s secretary, but not without explanation. She knew why I wanted to see Shirley -to talk more in depth about the reality of me working with a terminally ill teen. As it turned out, Shirley was not surprised to hear from me. She was surprised, however, that I was NOT going to quit on her. Here’s where the connection comes in……..are you ready? Shirley had been prepared for me. She handed me a mid-sized hard cover book and told me not to worry about the teaching part–that will take care of itself.
On Death and Dying, by Elisabeth Kubler Ross(1969) was her offering. Shirley handed me a self-help book. I couldn’t believe it! ‘There are only five things you gotta know about it. Keep the book for as long as ya need it.’ Then she left. What about those five things??? What did that really mean? On Death and Dying was a quick read and a very meaningful one. Unfortunately for Jonathan his leukaemia was taking him, but taking him slowly, which was difficult at so many levels. It was difficult for both of us. I kept going back for the next few weeks and we started to get to know each other, but it did not take him long to be too sick and tired to learn. I was asked if I would like to stop volunteering and I took that as a message: They didn’t need me anymore. Jonathan did not need me anymore. Not a few days after that, Jonathan passed away. There was no need for me to keep helping him grow. Back to helping me grow. I got busy with VIA Rail, taking extra ‘bids’ from the bidding board for summer employees, and the fall came. I was back at school. I wa becoming a teacher.
It was in April, not too long after Jonathan passed away, when I gave Shirley her book back. I can’t tell you how many times I read it, but I think it was more than twice. There was something about it that drew me back. The book laid out for me the five stages of dealing with death: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. That’s the last time I saw Shirley, the last time I saw the Teen Lounge, and the last time I ever worked with a terminally ill child. But not the last time I read On Death and Dying.
It was the first time, however, that I really felt like an adult. For me, it was a coming of age that I was not ready for…..or so I thought. I was involved in a ‘real life’ kind of thing. It was also the first time I knew that I wanted to help kids, and it was definitely the first time I got to know about child mortality. I wasn’t sure what to do with all of this ‘life and death’ stuff. Nobody else at York St. knew Jonathan, or at least it seemed that way. I didn’t talk much about him. We had so many things going on at that place. Maybe Debbie did….she was nursing at the time, but I am sure that everyone else was too involved with living. I apologise if I am misremembering! I am sorry if I underestimated what others were thinking.
So……today……………….it is thirty-seven years ago TO THE MONTH, that I learned about Elisabeth Kubler Ross and read On Death and Dying. I have been teaching for thirty-six years and have traveled the world quite a bit. I now live 12, 625 km from Halifax in a tropical climate and am happy to be teaching where I do. I am single, my kids have all grown up, and I am very soon going to be a grandpa for the first time. It’s all GO at the moment, but that’s the way we roll in my family. I have seen things, people and ideas come and go for whatever reasons, and I have become accustomed to that. My parents are not longer alive, and I have lost friends and even small children from my life. I have been through change many, many times in schools, and have grown to accept what change means.
I guess you are wondering why I am going on and on about this: what’s the point? Where this is leading? Well, to be honest, I tend to think that everything happens for a reason. Things come full circle in life. My tech skills are quite ok and I will admit that I use Twitter….no big deal there. This afternoon I opened a tweet from a very good friend and it resurfaced Elisabeth Kubler Ross for me once again. Thanks GB! I immediately looked back 36years. I am so thankful for having known Jonathan, for without him I would not have known Kubler Ross, and I would not have anything to offer my current grieving friends at work. They are experiencing a sort of grief that happens when change comes quickly. It is not the time to push On Death and Dying; on the other hand, The Grief of Accepting New Ideas (Rick Wormeli) https://www.amle.org/BrowsebyTopic/WhatsNew/WNDet/TabId/270/ArtMID/888/ArticleID/911/The-Grief-of-Accepting-New-Ideas.aspx) is probably much more appropriate, or maybe even Stephen Covey’s The Speed of Trust (http://www.speedoftrust.com/how-the-speed-of-trust-works/book). By the way, thanks MV for jogging my memory yesterday. I have your back!
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