In sixth grade, my fellow students and I were rewarded for academic successes with tickets, which could then be traded in for a variety of marvelous prizes, like Atomic Fireballs and erasers. Although I was never a student who needed much motivation to get As, I worked like I never had before to acquire those tickets.
The class in which I faced my greatest struggle (by which I mean, I sometimes got an A- instead of an A+) was math. I remember the shame I felt when I failed to achieve a perfect score. I wonder now if that didn't have something to do with making a mistake in front of my teacher, because he was also my grandfather.
After my mother called me yesterday to let me know that Grandpa had died, I realized that I had always thought of him only in relation to myself. I thought about how much he and my grandmother, who had put themselves through college as farmers while raising three kids, had shown me the benefit of hard work, the possibility to develop new dreams even as I age. I thought about his laugh, his kindness, the straw hat he would wear when he went outside, his affection for polkas.
But I didn't often think of him as a teacher. Perhaps this is strange since I'm a teacher now myself, and I realize how much effort and planning (and, I imagine, money out of his own pocket) went into preparing those tickets and getting those prizes for us to win.
For whatever reason, as I hung up the phone, I had two thoughts:
1. Every time my friend Cindy takes a creative nonfiction class, one of my grandfathers dies. (The brain is a strange thing in grief.) (I don't think it's Cindy's fault that Grandpa died.)
2. I should post this on the Northwestern High School Facebook page.
Maybe it's weird to think of social media at a time like that. But in that moment, my grief was not just mine; it was grief for a man who had devoted the later part of his life to hundreds--probably thousands--of kids, a man who had joked with them and played pranks (he especially liked his "chewing gum jar"), a man who truly wanted to help them learn. He was my grandfather, but he was also a teacher, and other people had the right to mourn him, too.
In the past few years, Alzheimer's had begun to pull him away from us, but when he died, his mind was only on the decline. We had not yet lost him entirely. When I told him I loved him during Christmas break and hugged him, he could still tell me he loved me back. I can't find it in myself to be entirely sad: he was deeply loved by his family and by people I have never known and will never meet. By anyone's estimates, those are the signs of a life well lived. I am blessed to have been a part of that life.
To help him remember, my grandmother had taken to writing notes and reminders around the house. Doors to staircases and closets were labeled NO so he wouldn't fall or wander into a place he might feel lost.
In the place he is now, he no longer suffers, the doors are all labeled YES, and he can walk right through.