Most teachers, at least the good ones, got into teaching because they wanted to make a difference in the lives of children. Sure, we all joke about the motivation of those three months off (which by the way has NEVER been three months), but deep down it is the everyday miracles that keep us going. The moments I cherish happen often for me, I guess because I am truly lucky and have great students. But, how do I know that my reach will go beyond the walls of my room?
Well, you see, I am a very lucky man. Early in my career, I had an encounter that helped define my life as an educator. I can think back to one time that I knew my presence had made a difference in the world outside my room.
I was in my fifth year teaching when I had an unexpected knock on the door to my tiny apartment. At the door were two students who had graduated the previous year from the school that I had just left. I lived across the street from my new school and I had visitors fairly frequently, but none from the previous school. At the door were John and Luke (and like Jeff from the previous story, not real names). I asked them in and we had a nice time catching up.
Maybe an hour into the conversation, Luke said, “I tracked you down because I wanted to thank you for saving my life.” I had absolutely no idea what he was referring to. I hadn’t seen him in a year and the tone of seriousness from one of the funniest kids I had ever known really took me by surprise. He said, “One night, a few months ago, I had decided to kill myself. I had just broken up with a girl that I was very serious with and I just didn’t see a reason to live.” I was shocked. I said that it must have really been a bad break up, but I wasn’t sure how I was the one who saved his live, since we hadn’t talked. He said, “I had a gun. I was ready to pull the trigger.” I had some training in leading a peer helping group and I remember the warning signs for suicide. I remember that number one warning sign was if the student had a plan. I thought to myself, “he had a plan.” Then he said, “I thought to myself. Mr. Shay would say this is really stupid and that the problems I was having would pass. So, I put the gun down and I am SO glad that I did. You were right. Now that some time has passed, I know that it was something that did pass. I have a new girlfriend and we are really happy. So I came here to say thank you.”
What an amazing gift I was given. It is amazing to me that this kid would track me down and tell me this amazingly personal story. I didn’t live that close to where the kid was living and it was quite a trip. But the truly amazing thing was that it happened at all. You see, I don’t remember having that conversation. I lead a group of peer helpers and that was one of the topics, but I don’t remember being particularly moving. There was a student who committed suicide in my second year of teaching, which was a defining moment in my career. I knew I couldn’t have saved that kid, but I was going to do whatever I could to make sure that there wasn’t another one like him. I even carried his picture in my wallet for years to remind me to take extra time with kids. So, I guess maybe when we covered that part of the peer helping curriculum, I was extra motivated. Maybe Luke remembered the passionate way I talked about it. Either way, I am so blessed to know that I truly have had a lasting impact.
Please know that even if you haven't had the good fortune to have a student come back and share their profound thanks, you make a difference. Please remember this story as the year passes. On those busy days that seem to never end....when one MORE kid needs a few minutes of your time….Your time and words and passion could impact someone deeply…..maybe even saving a life.