There are always ones you know you’ll hear about. You hope not to, but you know you will, and it won’t be good. There are those you know you’ll likely never hear from again, but you figure they’ll turn out okay anyway. There are those you hope, and maybe expect to keep in touch, and they do, making your day when they come around again to let you know how they are doing, or just to say hello. And then, there are the surprises.
They don’t fit into a category, they’re one of a kind. They might be quiet, or loud. Tall or short, big or small. They make an impact. Sometimes you don’t know how much until …well, you do know how much.
Esdras was my student. The quiet, plodding kind. I inherited him from a fellow teacher when I started back to work part-time in 2012. He didn’t crack a smile for the better part of a year. Not to say he wasn’t respectful, he always was, but he played his cards close to the vest. An introvert to the max. I think it was one of the things I most appreciated about him because I’m the same way. I’d ask him how he was doing, he’d shrug and say, “Alright.” He mostly did what he was supposed to, but on the rare occasion that he didn’t, talking to his parents would resolve the issue. He always paced more slowly than I hoped and knew he could, but it was his preferred pace. When his closest friend dropped out of school, he stuck around and ramped it up, ever so slightly.
He participated in our small group instruction classes, providing myself and his English teacher with a bird’s eye-view into his teenage mind. He wrote a paper detailing why he always made sure to carry two fully charged iPods with him – he was a misanthrope in many respects and never wanted to have to listen to noisy people. He did the same in class for the most part. He wrote about how traditional school didn’t work for him, how his choices were once poor, but had changed.
I pushed him to go to college, and though he was capable of going straight to a 4-year university, he chose to go to a community college. Again, his preferred pace. The smiles became wider, and more frequent as graduation drew nearer. One of the ear buds came out, so he could still listen to his tunes, but hear me if I needed to tell him something, and I think he actually wanted to listen, if just to observe…unless of course, it got too noisy. I even got the occasional chuckle. What’s better, I would get the groovy head nod when he was listening to a tune he really liked, and the best, even singing along. I would ask him what he was listening to. One day it was “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”
“The Temptations,” he answered. He had good taste.
I started to do a countdown as he reached his last five units of work, with everything else completed. Four more to go. Now three. Just two more, Esdras! Is this your last one? Did you pass? Hey everyone – Esdras just graduated high school! Everyone clapped, and he cringed a bit – more noise.
He was 19. I made him take a picture of me with his cap and gown that day. He humored me.
I watched him walk across the stage on May 29 of this year. He gave me a flower and a thank you card. I saw him after the ceremony with his mother, both beaming. I took their picture from afar.
He emailed me to find out when his diploma would arrive. I told him sometime in late June.
I returned from vacation in July and he had yet to pick it up despite reminders. On Wednesday of last week, I saw his older brother John walk in the door with another young woman. I said, “Hey! You’re Esdras’ brother! You’re here to pick up his diploma, yeah?” They said yes, and came over as I dug through the drawer of unclaimed leather-bound certificates. When I found it, I opened it so they could see his name and make sure it was correct. It was and they asked if they could talk to me…sure, I said, despite the zoo of students I had at my desk…let’s go outside, I said.
When we went outside, John told me that his little brother had been diagnosed with leukemia in the middle of June. I grabbed at my chest in disbelief, but nothing could have prepared me for what he said next.
Before I even had a chance to ask if he was okay, he uttered the words I hope I never hear again about anyone else.
“Esdras, he fought for a month, but unfortunately, my little brother… he passed away Friday.”
He had just turned 20. I was gutted. I burst into tears and cried with his brother. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I said as I hugged him. Those words are never enough, but there was truly nothing else to say. I am so incredibly sorry.
He was one of the ones I never expected to hear from, but figured would turn out okay. And he did. Until he wasn’t…and he was the surprise.
I want to share with you the song that always will remind me of him sitting at my table, bopping his head up and down, while he did his work. It’s a great song, and will now always remind me of one of my favorite students. Rest in peace, young man. You are missed.