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"Winter Mourning" - courtesy
“Winter Mourning” – courtesy

Mothers and fathers often say that the most difficult thing they can ever do is bury their own child. Since I have no children of my own, I’m not yet able to empathize. In the meantime, however, each child that walks into my classroom is “one of my own,” and when we lose one, in two simple words – I mourn.

This past Wednesday, I attended the funeral of a former student. I tried to prepare myself by re-reading Jeremy Adams’s article on the same subject. I tried reading some of my old poetry, including John Donne’s famous “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Nothing really moved me. I still felt – blank.

At the age of 21, this young man reportedly lost control of his vehicle while driving in the snow, and that was it. I don’t know the entire story; in fact, I don’t need to. My only internal requirement is to remember all the good times we shared.

The first time I met this kiddo was 7 years ago. He was walking into freshman orientation. As the only 9th grade social studies teacher at our school and as the new adviser for the student council, this was my bread-and-butter. I wanted nothing to go wrong. So when I saw a 6’7”, 370+ behemoth walking down the hallway, I quickly accosted him. When he opened his mouth and spoke in a nasal, yet-to-fully-reach-puberty tone, I realized that his voice matched his words – “I am in 9th grade.”

I looked this young dude up-and-down and then asked of him, “Well then, what’s your name?”


“Brady?” I pondered for a second. “No, no, no. I’m going to call you Tiny.”

“Whatever you like, Mr… Mr…”

“Mr. Miller.”

A few weeks later, we were beginning class. My second year was one where I wanted to change the world. I’d experienced the growing pains of my first year, and now I was going to start to teach not to survive – but to change minds and change worlds.

Quickly, Tiny was like a bison in my crosshairs. He was bright. He didn’t work hard. He had weathered a huge loss in his family when he was younger, and he was raised by his grandparents. There was a lot to him – not just physically, but emotionally and intellectually as well.

He must’ve saw something in me, too. He and another student asked me about weightlifting and exercise, and we had a few good conversations. They then talked a good game about going to work out in the morning like I do – I still have a few students each year who say they can hang with my 5:45am regiment – so I figured I’d give them a whirl. Hell, I’d even pick them up (with permission, of course)

Pick them up I did – for the next 130 days. Sure, they missed a few days here and there (as did I), but we had not just a great time at the gym, but talking about life. Talking about goals. Making the world a better place. I didn’t know it back then, but Tiny was my Michael Oher before the movie “The Blind Side” was ever dreamed about.

I guess that makes me Sandra Bullock.

Yet, unlike Sandra Bullock, circumstances led me elsewhere. I moved schools after that year, taking a new job that paid more in a suburban district. I loved the students there (it was my alma mater), but it was hard teaching at that school and living on $32,500 salary.

All those thoughts washed through my brain as I stood there, looking at his monolithic, smiling, and cold frame in his open casket. Now fashioned with a bushy beard and a bit longer hair, he was now a young man.

Or, at least, he was.

Lastly, I thought to myself an array of questions:

  • Should I have stayed at that school longer than that year?
  • If I had stayed around, would my friendship have been more influential?
  • Did I do enough?

After walking past the casket, I ran into his grandmother. She remembered me: “Oh, yes, the guy who took him to the gym every day! You were a great influence. Thank you for coming.”

Then, Brady’s mother saw me.

“Oh, thank you for being in his life. You were there at the right time. You – yes, you – helped him turn himself around.”

I may not have saved his life, but I wasn’t expected to. I, and his family, were glad to be involved in it, both inside and outside the classroom. Vindication for a job done to the best I could. Vindication: forbidding mourning.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Mr. Jake Miller is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year, a 2017 NEA Global...

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