The piece below was written about a year ago as I was winding down my career at Royal Vale High School.
Despite rapidly approaching my “serene sixties” (hopefully with all the wisdom and equilibrium that that decade of life should occasion), I nevertheless find myself fundamentally unprepared for the illness or death of any one of my immediate contemporaries. The startling litmus test for this unreadiness came a little over two years ago with the sudden death of my brother-in-law, precipitated by a particularly rapid and virulent cancer. How unfair I thought it was that such a seemingly healthy and vigorous man should be struck down at that moment, and in that fashion. And to be perfectly candid, perhaps the most arresting aspect for me about his death was the simple fact that he was only four years older than I was at the time. Imagine, therefore, my thoughts when shortly over a year ago, I attended a memorial service for a young man to whom I had taught history at Rosemount High School some 23 years earlier. Again cancer, but this time only forty years of age.
A religious observance in his memory was conducted deep in the East-End of Montreal, in a small community called Tetreaultville. I would not have known about the service had I not seen a few days earlier in the local newspaper a rather extensive obituary about David’s life and death. For several reasons, I instinctively thought I should attend the ritual.
You see, teachers lose many students in the course of their careers, and in another sense lose all of them when the pupils matriculate. David was one such student. I never saw him again after he graduated in June of 1983. Such is life; such is the teaching profession. Nevertheless, through the years, I remembered him well and thought of him often for he was one of a handful of scholars in my senior European history course who had a profound and genuine interest in history, politics, and world affairs. I recollect with gratifying nostalgia the joy he was to teach!
I also recall him (along with a dozen or so other teens) for his youthful enthusiasm and abundant faith in me as he willingly went door to door on my behalf when I ran as an environmentalist in a provincial by-election in Montreal in the spring of 1983. In that regard, I also vividly call to mind his easy smile and his simple and earnest good spirit.
David died in Victoria, B.C., where he had made his home. After his death, his young wife returned to her family in Melbourne, Australia, although at the Montreal memorial service I met both David’s mother (whom I had already encountered at a Parent-Teacher evening in 1982) and his sister, along with many others attending that celebration of his life. As we can all easily imagine, it is a deeply moving experience to witness a parent assisting at the funeral of their child. Nothing in life quite prepares you for it.
During the service, I thought often of David and learned much about how he had lived his life since I had last seen him all those years ago. He was fine young man and achieved a great deal in such a short span of time. Rapidly approaching the end of my rather lengthy career in education in this city, I also contemplated at that same emotional occasion the many other individuals to whom I had taught and who had died an untimely death – some while students in school, others shortly after graduating. These premature passings ran the rueful gamut from suicide to murder, to the more frequent automobile and motorcycle accidents. One of my former pupils was even killed in New York in the horrible events of September 11, 2001.
Once roused, my recollections and reflection continued unabated, centering around that one essential tenet that, just as it is a truism to say that children should not die before their parents, it could also be similarly asserted that students should not die before their teachers. Surely it was in that vein that Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet of Montague, upon glimpsing the body of his dead son, exclaiming “O thou untaught! what manners is in this, to press before thy father to the grave?”
Educators remember many of the students they instruct in the course of their career. I estimate that I myself have taught over 5,000 pupils in my time. It is truly a remarkable number. Moreover, I often learn of some who become successful. I hear of those who themselves become teachers or doctors while others aspire, achieve and find happiness differently, including the one individual I taught early in my teaching vocation who was, until most recently, a member of the Quebec Cabinet.
However, at the same time, I cannot help but lament those of my pupils who succumbed to death much too early. Although nearing middle age, David was, sadly, just one such person. I remember him – and the far too many others – with profound sympathy.
Requiéscant in pace.