I believe in the wisdom of teenagers and their power to change lives.
In 1995, I met Luke, a young, slightly chubby teenage boy with a round face and curly brown hair. He was the kind of boy who you had to like, friendly, with a boyish smile and a big and memorable laugh. But he could also drive you crazy and made his classmates groan because he simply loved to talk and inundate you with a sincere but endless barrage of questions.
I was a young, inexperienced teacher in my first year of teaching high school, exhausted from lack of sleep, overwork, and holding myself to unreasonable standards. I remember the desperation of wondering whether I could make it through the year and of thinking seriously about not coming back for the second term.
Most of my students had no idea. In addition to pouring my heart and soul into every lesson, I was vigilant about being positive and energetic in the classroom. One even marveled that she had never met anyone who loved their job more than I did.
On a day near the end of the first term, Luke stayed after school. It was a day when I was feeling particularly discouraged, so when he asked me about the Economics class I would be teaching in the second term, I said, “Actually, I’m not sure I’ll be here for that.” He was stunned. I explained that I was just really tired and wasn’t sure if I could make it to the end of the year. That was one of the last things I said that day. Then, for over half an hour straight, he took over, telling me quite vigorously that I didn’t need to work so hard, ordering me to take short cuts like other teachers did, and insisting that I needed to stay. When he finished, I thanked and told him I would think about it.
I was incredibly touched and strengthened by this experience. I still remember the enormous smile on his face when I told him the next day that I had decided to stay. It is a moment that changed my life profoundly and sealed my passion for teaching. Although I later left to further my own education, this passion brought me back to teaching three years ago, where I remain today.
A year ago, when my students were writing about people who had influenced them deeply, one asked me who one of my greatest influences was. I thought about it for a moment and told them it was a student named Luke from my first year of teaching.
I became curious about what had happened to Luke and did a google search. I found an obituary entitled, “Luke Pedemonte, 28, a young, wise man.” It spoke of a young man who suffered from a rare pituitary disorder, cared most about relationships and adventure, always asked a lot of questions, whose friends at Chico State University set up a wemissluke.com website when he studied abroad in New Zealand, and who had worked the desk at the Green Tortoise Hostel in San Francisco “like no one ever did in 13 years” and had a “natural ability to connect with travelers.”
Though saddened by his early death, I smiled at the life of this young man I knew, at the young, wise man who had so profoundly touched my life and showed me in his caring that day that there is sometimes strength in our imperfections and power in our ability to connect deeply with others to make our characters and souls stronger.
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