I extended my arm for the first time the other day. It was just a few inches, but it was enough to signal my impending death. I had just woken up and my eyes were a bit blurry from sleep. Or so I thought. I rubbed them, then rubbed them again but couldn’t quite get them to focus so that I could read my book. I unconsciously extended my arm. Just a few inches. And that was enough. The letters cleared right up. And in that moment of satisfaction there was a moment of panic. I knew what was happening. I was going to die. Not right then of course, but eventually. My eyes were going. Just an inch. But you know what they say about giving an inch, it’s not far before your eyes are gone by miles.
I’m not saying I haven’t noticed other things about my age. I have. My skin isn’t as elastic as it used to be. The lines are more deeply defined. There are a few more spots. Sometimes I miss something said very low, or when someone is turned away from me. Not often, but sometimes. I certainly can’t run and play around like I used to. But it was that extended arm that really struck me. My eyesight has always been perfect. Until now. It’s strange getting older. Spending every day with teenagers is an interesting experiment in feeling young while being constantly reminded that I’m not.
More than being reminded of my age, I’m reminded of the shortness of life. It’s a strange job because at my school the student turnover rate is very high. Each student stays at my high school on an average of eight weeks. My kids are in state’s custody – they are either in foster, proctor or group homes. Most of them anyway. They all come from lives that are not completely stable. I never know how long I’m going to have them. I may have a student for several semesters or several days. I’m forced to live in the moment. My students could leave at any time. It’s a microcosm of life I guess. We could all go at any moment, so we should live our lives as if it’s the last time we’ll ever see one another every time we part. It’s definitely true with my students. I have to make every moment, every minute, every day count. I try my hardest to plant the most important seeds of love, understanding, respect and responsibility and hope that one sunny day, sometime in a distant summer, they’ll blossom. I may never see it, but I hope it’s true.
Not too long ago another teacher, younger than me, came into my classroom with tears threatening to burst over the dams of her eyelashes. She asked, “Do students in normal high schools die this often?” Another student we knew had just died. We all felt the loss rather significantly. The lives my students live leave them more open to death. It’s that simple. My kids die more often and it’s strange dealing with these deaths that come quicker than we are ready to deal with them. We loose kids to suicide, drug overdose, crime, gangs and simple health issues resulting from abusing your young body. My kids die too often.
So I’m forced, perhaps more practically than a normal high school teacher, to think about what would happen if each student didn’t come back tomorrow. Have I done everything I can? Not just teach them about government, or sociology or history – but have I taught them about life, about learning and about respecting themselves and others? Have I shown them the respect they deserve as humans? Because whether they leave to another foster home, go back to jail or return to their Heavenly Father they have left my influence. I want to make sure I give them all I can while they’re in my classroom and in my life.
It is not morbid, it is practical. Death is a part of life. It’s on my mind, perhaps more than most, because I live with the possibility of loosing my students at any moment. I’ve been thinking a lot about getting older lately, what with my extended elbow and my grandparents 65th wedding anniversary party the other day. They are an amazing couple. It’s deeply moving to see the two of them together. They made it a long time and they intend to make it even longer. Standing at their anniversary party, I was deeply moved by the amount of people that came to the party. The crowd of people coming to show respect for the couple that had influenced their lives. Some needed help making it out of their cars; some needed a walker, or an arm to stand on, and some sent children in their stead. But they came. Friends and neighbors from 65 years of living and serving the people around them. It was an honor to watch it happen.
My grandma mentioned during the celebration that she did not plan on having a funeral. There was no need she said. I looked around at just the number of family that was present and thought about all the people that came to congratulate her and her grandpa and I puzzled at her decision. I’m not sure what got her thinking she didn’t need a funeral. For my whole life my grandma has had plans for her death. She’s a practical woman. Knew what she wanted, who she wanted to speak, what songs were to be sung. But now she says there is no need. I gently disagreed with her. I think everyone should have some kind of memorial service, even if it’s a simple one.
I wanted to tell her if there was only me, if I was the only person left when she died, that I would hold a service for her. Just me, standing in a place of importance. It wouldn’t have to be a church pulpit or a graveside. It could be a my tree house overlooking the deep green lawn and dark yellow sunflowers, or it could be the shore of a lake with a fishing rod in my hand, or the golden border of a field, with the sun to my back looking for pheasants flying up. Any of those places would do. But I would speak with a loud voice as to the majesty of my grandmother, of her courage and beauty, her testimony and love of life. I would speak it to the wind and sky and earth. Not for her but for myself. Because without her around I will need to remind myself of her example. I would need to keep my chin up and my voice firm as I reminded the world that once there was a woman of courage and beauty who inspired not only me, not only her husband of over 65 years, but her friends and neighbors and generations to come that she had lived amongst us. That kind of worth deserves to be spoken out loud in public, not just remembered silently to ourselves.
No doubt it would be hard for me to speak of her life. No doubt I would choke up, stutter and break down. Raising children is hard. Keeping a marriage together for 65 years is hard. Watching your family rise and fall through the years is hard. Watching your body break down, year after year, is hard. Speaking my grandmother’s achievements is easy compared to what she’s done for me. If she asks it, if she demands there be no formal service, I will honor that. Because she taught us to honor the wishes of people. But secretly I will go to a place of beauty, where the birds are singing and the fish are jumping. I will breathe in the cool air and I will speak the life of my grandmother as I knew it. I owe her that. And I owe my students the same.
Because living as a teenager today is hard. Trying to figure out what’s right and wrong, sometimes on your own is hard. Trying to fight against drugs, gangs, pornography and just plain peer pressure is hard. Most teenagers today have some kind of support network, relationships they’ve built up – parents and teachers – people they can trust with the hard stuff. Many of my students don’t have that. They’ve been moved from foster home to foster home, school to school, place to place by indigent parents. They’re looking for a place to land and someone to trust in a world that is full of real-life monsters looking to get them. Often they don’t have the opportunities to stretch out their lives and really live like my grandma and grandpa. Their lives may be short, but they are worth celebrating, worth speaking out about.
Luckily I have a place of power to speak from. The other day, after I’d gotten all worked up about something – again – my students were smiling and laughing and one girl said, “You should be a preacher.” I smiled back and said, “I am.” I gestured to the front of my classroom where I have an old time church pulpit keeping my notes and rolls handy. “I preach to you, my congregation, every day and then you take my Word out into the world and spread the Gospel of Russ.” Everyone laughed as I said this with a flourish, ever increasing volume and an upraised fist. I do my best to speak the truth in my classroom. Because my pulpit, like the shore of the lake, or the border of a field, is a place of power.
Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. Maybe it’s because now things are coming into focus – as my arm extends, life seems to be getting shorter. I want to speak out for everyone I’ve known. I want to show honor and respect to everyone who has influenced my life – whether it’s been for a week or for decades. A life is a life. Some lives have had more opportunities to spread their own gospel around. Some have had the honor and privilege to live 65 years with someone they’ve loved in peace and happiness; some have had only 15 years of drugs and disruption to try and figure it all out. What it means is we have to tell those who are present what they mean to us – the impact they’ve had on our life. We have to speak about those no longer near us. Remember them through stories and words and songs. Talk about and remember everyone who has made an impact on us, from grandparents of 40 years, to students of 40 days. And when those we love pass away from us, when their lifetime with us is done, we honor them. We honor them with our words and actions, sometimes formally from a church pulpit or shore of a lake or the front of a classroom. But we honor them with the time that we have left. We honor them with our own lives. Our own words. Our own thoughts and actions. That way, their lives, like my arm, just keep extending outward into clarity.