Wednesday, December 18, 2013

When paths cross

Pam was a regular 14-year-old when she entered my freshman English class - a little nervous, a little unsure of herself and her abilities, and yet full of desire to find herself and to conquer high school. She was passionate about the environment, specifically marine life, which she researched for a project in my class. She scheduled extra conferences with me during that assignment so that she could write a great paper. Writing did not come easy to her, but she worked hard. She was proud of her product. I was proud of her.

I watched Pam blossom over the next three years, and we grew closer through brief conversations in the hall and before school when she would sneak into my classroom. "Mrs. Turrrrnerrr!" she'd call from across a crowded hall. She always made me smile. 

By junior year she would sneak away from lunch to chat with me on my hall duty. She'd talk about her struggles in school; she'd unload social distresses; she'd share successes and dreams of the future. She had blossomed into a vibrant young woman. At Christmas that year, she shyly slid by my desk at hall duty, dropping me a gift and scurrying away before I could react. The note she included was incredibly heartfelt; the gift was by far the best I have ever received from a student.

In the fall of her senior year, Pam collapsed on the track at school. When my supervisor called to tell me that she had died, I was heartbroken. I went to my home office and pulled out that note she had written, stared at the slate on my wall. I didn't understand how a girl so vibrant had been taken. The weeks following her death affected everyone in the school community.

Today the slate that Pam gave me hangs in my office at work, prominently displayed so that I see it every time I open the door. When I entered for the first time this semester, I read the words and reminded myself of the reason I teach. I thought of Pam and realized that this year was the tenth anniversary of her death. At that moment I had an overwhelming urge to write a note to her parents - to let them know that I still thought of Pam regularly, that I am still inspired by her.

I had no idea how to contact them; I could not remember their first names, and their last name is one of the most common in the northeast. I tucked the notion of writing to them away and continued to think of Pam each day as I entered the office.

Through a series of ironic coincidences, last week I ended up at a holiday party in the town where I taught Pam. My husband and I arrived separately, and as I stepped out of the car, he asked me if I had trouble finding the place. 

A man in the parking lot said, "I live in this town, and I couldn't find it!" 

I laughed and said, "I used to work across the street, and I couldn't find it!"

We started chatting about my former life as a teacher there - and his life as a parent of children who attended the school. "What's your name?" I asked, wondering if I had taught his children.

He told me his name, and as soon as he said the last name, I knew. He was Pam's father.

I told him the story that I wrote here about wanting to write him a note and not knowing where to send it. He told me the heartbreaking tale of the 10-year mass held in Pam's honor, as well as a few other trials his family has been dealing with these last few weeks.

We chatted about Pam, my memories of her, and before we parted he said, " I just love hearing these stories." He gave me a bear hug, which I returned in earnest, and I knew that our paths were meant to cross that night. 

Teaching is a work of heart. Pam reminds me of that every day.  I'm glad I had the chance to tell her family that even a decade later, she makes me smile on a regular basis.