Since I posted my very minimalist Remembrance Day post a week ago, I’ve been kind of in shock, trying to cope with some terrible news that came in a phone call on the morning of the holiday. My boss, Tim, said, “You know if I’m calling you at this hour in the morning it can’t be good news,” and went on to tell me that one of my co-workers, Jeff, had died suddenly overnight. He had been at work the day before, apparently in fine health, so it was a complete shock.
(this is a pic of Jeff and me with our student Emily … it’s rare for staff to be in pictures together, though we get a lot taken with our students, so I’m grateful to Emily for pulling us together for this shot a couple of years ago).
This is the second time in just over a year that we’ve had this kind of news at work — another of our teachers, Bren, died suddenly on the Labour Day weekend last year. Both men were dedicated teachers who were dearly loved both by colleagues and students. Jeff’s loss really made me reflect on what phenomenal teachers I work with. I know there are extraordinary teachers in all areas of the profession, and I’ve taught with some great ones. But before I came to my present job I had never met teachers who were so willing to go the extra mile for students, and who engaged with young people on so many levels.
It’s kind of funny to me that after years of teaching in Adventist church schools where we were all talked so much about our role as “Christian teachers,” I ended up at a school formerly run by a Catholic lay order, where the present staff is made up of devout Catholics, lapsed Catholics, a few not-at-all-religious Protestants, and me. In this setting, religion is rarely ever spoken of openly. And it’s here that I’ve found the most amazing, truly Christlike people, always going above and beyond expectations to meet their students’ needs.
Jeff was one of the best of a brilliant lot. Since his death, tributes to him have been coming from all over — not just from his students and his large family, but from other community organizations with which he was actively involved. When someone is so loved and admired, people often say “I knew from the first minute I met him that we were going to be friends.” This was not the case with Jeff, who hid his tender heart under a very gruff exterior. Almost everyone who knew him here at our centre, myself included, said of him, “When I first met Jeff, I thought, ‘What is wrong with this guy? Why is he mad at me?'”
In my case, I had come to work at the Centre as an unpaid intern during a year when Jeff, one of the founding staff members, had been laid off along with a bunch of other people due to severe funding cuts. The following year, when funding recovered somewhat, he was hired back and I was hired on part-time, but for some reason I got the office that used to be Jeff’s. Every day he would come in, glower at me, and grunt a greeting (“What are you doing?” being one of his openers) and I would think “Wow, this man really hates me for getting his office!”
In time I found out, as everyone did, that he was funny, kind and incredibly generous — as well as being gruff and cranky. We became good friends and workmates as we worked together on several school projects outside of our regular teaching routine. Now, trying to pick up the threads of some of those tasks again and do them on my own or with other people, I miss his sarcasm, his blunt honesty, his perceptiveness, and how he always made me laugh. He had fewer pretensions than anyone I’ve ever met — he never had a facade to maintain or attempted to impress anyone. And by not trying to impress anyone, he made a huge impact on everyone around him.
I can’t help but contrast him with Bren, our other co-worker who passed away last year. The word everyone used for Bren was “gentle”; he was a soft-spoken, kindly man who never said an unkind word about anyone, even as a joke. The word everyone used for Jeff was “gruff”; he wasted little breath on pleasantries, but he was always willing to confront a student who was having a hard time and have the tough conversations that a gentler teacher, like Bren, might have avoided or sidestepped. The fact that both men were so different, yet that I admired them both so much and their students loved them both so much, reminds me that there is not just one right way to be a good person, or a good teacher, or a good Christian. We are not called to become cookie-cutter saints, but to be fully and gloriously ourselves.
(This picture shows both Bren and Jeff, again with Emily).
One day earlier this fall I came back from lunch to find that one of our more exuberant students had covered my monitor with sticky notes saying “I LOVE TRUDY! BEST TEACHER EVER!!!” Jeff came in, looked over my shoulder, and grunted, “How come nobody ever leaves me notes like that?”
“Because you’re so crabby,” I told him. It was safe to joke about because we all knew how Jeff’s students loved him, and how he loved them. It was true, he was the kind of person who wasn’t verbal or demonstrative in his affection, nor did he encourage that kind of response from others. He showed his love for his students in the time he took with them and the attention he paid them, and they showed theirs in the respect they had for him and their love of hanging out in his room and taking smoke breaks with him (he was the only smoker on staff).
But now, as I see the tremendous outpouring of tributes to Jeff on Facebook, the whiteboard in his room covered with messages from students who miss him, the giant cards people have made and signed in his honour, I think, maybe he could have used a few more sticky notes in his life from people saying “I Love You! You’re the Best Teacher Ever!!” He would have snorted and laughed at them, but I think he would have valued them. The fact is, trite but true, we so often leave unsaid the things we should say to the people who matter to us. Statements like “You inspire me,” “You’ve done so much for me,” and even simply “Thank you,” often go unspoken, because we always believe there’ll be time later on to say them.
I miss my friend and co-worker Jeff a lot. I certainly never told him how much I valued him, because it would have seemed weird and awkward, and besides, I figured I’d have plenty of time to say stuff like that — maybe on a card when he retired, if he ever did. But there wasn’t time, and that makes me think — what other things am I leaving unsaid? To whom else do I want to say, “Thank you — I admire you — I’ve learned a lot from you” while there’s still time? What sticky notes do I want to leave where they can be seen?