Last week I was told that a former student had recently died in a car accident. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve gotten news like this, but this time it is different. He was a student who entered my class some 11 years ago with a major chip on his shoulder. However, by the time he left my class he was starting to turn things around and over the next couple years was able to recover from a disastrous start in high school. He gave me part of the credit for turning his life around – an honor that grew with time as he traveled through his life and made occasional visits. He told me it was that I didn’t give up on him, I didn’t just throw him out class when he said something stupid (he had his moments!), and that I made world history interesting. Ultimately it was a single assignment that created that change in my class, a poem written from the perspective of a soldier in World War I (I wrote about it in a 2006 post here). Even after he submitted it and brought the class to tears when he read it, he continued to work on it and refine it. He would bring the new revisions to me to read, but he kept the original with my comments in his binder during his junior and senior year.
When he graduated (on time), he joined the Marines. I think he saw himself as the tragic soldier he envisioned in that poem. After he graduated he visited me four times. Before and between each of his three tours in Iraq. He was a changed man with each visit. Before he went he was excited. After his first tour he was empowered and ready to go back. On the third visit he introduced me to his pregnant wife and he lamented returning to Iraq.
He limped in on his fourth visit. His third tour was cut short when he nearly died in Iraq. He also told me that right after he was hit and though it was the end, he thought of the poem he wrote. It ends like this: But in the end I shall fall like the rest. This time he introduced me to his baby girl.
As I go back and read it again now, it is these lines that strike me the most:
Looking at pictures of my wife and kids.
Leaving them will be the hardest thing I ever did.
He was one of those students who helped me early in my career define what type of teacher I was going to be. While I have seen others turn their lives, he was the first and the most dramatic.
A few weeks ago he died in a car accident. He survived a troubled youth and three tours in Iraq. I am honored to have been part of this brave soldier’s path through life and deeply saddened by his loss.
Rest in peace Donald.