A few years ago, my then department chair asked me for a favor. Would I be willing to go straight from one class on main campus to teach a Comp 1 course at the downtown campus, and it wasn’t just any class—it was Early College, which meant I would be teaching high school students?
No. I didn’t want to teach this class. I didn’t want to be so rushed that I couldn’t even stop to pee between leaving one classroom, getting to my car, racing downtown, and entering the next one. No. I didn’t want to teach high school students, which was precisely why I taught at the college level. No. I did not want to go to the downtown campus. No. No. No. My laundry list of emphatic “Nos” didn’t matter; I caved and resented the decision from the very moment I agreed to it. I complained to friends. I solicited insights from colleagues. I laid in bed and thought about how much I did not want to do this.
So here I was, walking into a building I’d never entered to teach a group of students I had no desire to teach. And there they were. 20+ teenagers. One additional adult. All I could think about was how miserable this poor, lonely woman would be. Who in their right mind would want to be stuck in this room with me—angry and armed with rumors and whisperings about what I should expect of these students—and them? Sure, I’d been told they were accelerated, gifted inner city students who were chosen to participate in this program with the college. I’d also been told that downtown students were rougher around the edges, less disciplined, more headache and hassle than they were worth. I was told to establish dominance the first day, to make sure it was clear that childish behavior would not be tolerated. I mentally prepared for some Dangerous Minds urban rumble as this was what I was told to expect.
The first weeks went by, and I started to relax. Tiffany, the adult who was also a student worker at the downtown campus, graciously stepped in to help ease the burden of limited time for me, ensuring that the room was ready to go the moment I stepped in. My students started to get the hang of the concepts, and other than almost tripping over some band equipment and the initial juggling of bus schedules, we all seemed to be acclimating to one another with relative ease.
In the first row sat a gentle giant of a boy, one on the cusp of adulthood. Soft spoken. Serious. He came to me, explaining that he wanted to do well on his paper. That he was hoping I would work with him, showing him how to get it right. In order to give him the attention he was asking for, I’d be giving up my time after class—the time where I grabbed something to eat, used the restroom (finally), and prepped for my night classes—and I’d be spending even more time than I’d expected downtown.
We worked hard. He brought in draft after draft. I slashed and burned sentences. Crossed out clichés. Pointed to passive voice and punctuation and every possible pitfall he’d found to fall in. Any other student would have accepted good enough and gone on his way, but not Jack. He accepted only perfection, and we sweat through the process until he found his footing, understanding exactly how to build what I demanded in a way that made sense to his math-leaning mind.
On those days, we talked. He shared with me his personal story, one that would leave me shaken by the circumstances. I encouraged him to consider historically black colleges after graduation because I thought he’d benefit from the community and strength exhibited in the environments cultivated at those schools. He was interested, but then he bowed his head, explaining that if he went far away to school, he was afraid no one would come to see him graduate.
When he received news of his full scholarship to the engineering program at OSU, he asked me to be there when he got his degree. We laughed at how he’d be the only young black man there with a white woman barely old enough to be his mother crying her eyes out.
The day he had a seizure in my class, I learned that I am very good at organizing logistics; however, I am terrible at medical emergencies. Tiffany, bless her heart, sat with him on the floor until medics arrived. I ran down the hall, screaming for someone to call 911, with my cell phone in my hand. A few days later, he told me he could hear me talking to him in the fog of what was happening. That he knew I was there, and he was not alone.
Jack and I last texted not long ago when there was an active shooter on the OSU campus. As soon as I saw the news, I pulled up the contact, My Baby Jack, in my phone. He was locked down in a classroom. It was unfolding near the building he was in. He told me he was scared, and I tried to stay brave, to remind him it would be okay; however, truthfully, I was scared too. I didn’t want him to feel fear like that. I didn’t want him to worry he was alone as it happened. I wanted—no, needed—him to know that he was important, that I was there beside him, and that he was loved.
Thursday night, I learned from one of his former classmates that Jack had passed away. The details of the situation are still murky to me, but it seems it was another seizure. This time, he didn’t just need to drink Gatorade and stay hydrated afterward. I sat at my kitchen table, rocking back and forth as my face burned from the tears that could not stop.
It’s only been a few days, but I am still crying. I can’t seem to wrap my head around his absence in this world, and I worry that he was afraid and alone. That his brilliant mind knew what was happening but couldn’t stop it. That he didn’t know how important he was. That he didn’t know how much love swirled around him every single day.
The final days of that semester would be my last ones there at the college as I had decided to relocate after the semester’s end. As the class was coming to a close, I planned our last day together. I stayed up far too late putting together a presentation, one filled with pictures I’d secretly (and not so secretly) taken of this group of extraordinary individuals. They were not the students I’d been prepared for, and I suspect I wasn’t the teacher they’d expected either. Those high school students, plus one invaluable adult, showed me that it isn’t the age of the student that matters; rather, it is the heart in the person that does.
Jack had one of the biggest hearts I have ever seen. But even that paled in comparison to the light that shone from his quick-to-flash smile. Jack was a special kind of person, and I’m not quite ready to consider how there should be two more chairs at his college graduation. However, now they will be filled with other graduates and other families and other smiles and tears. I’m selfish enough to know that I wanted that moment with him, and that’s been taken away from us both. Jack. My student. My pride. My sweet boy. And while I miss him and that crazy big smile, I know that the real loss comes in the contributions he was never allowed to make. That at 20 years old, he had so much left to give, and that the void he leaves behind is one that can never be filled.