My friend JW

Another school year, over and done. Time to wave goodbye to another class of 8th graders; time to reflect on the successes and disasters and try to learn from them. If I’m going to be honest, this was a rough year. It was a year where even a great group of students couldn’t keep the bubble from bursting; it was a year that, in some ways, I’d soon like to forget…and in other ways, I’m glad I never will. It was the year of JW, and despite the ending, he was the highlight of 2010-2011. It seems strange to consider his battle and our walk on that road with him as a “highlight,” but if you were a part of it, you know what I mean.

There are early, dark memories: the pain and disbelief in the first few weeks of his diagnosis, tears rolling down parents’ cheeks at Back to School Night, the shock on our students’ faces, his final Friday of teaching and one last FAC. Back then, we were fueled with the need to help our friend. We raised funds, we walked and ran to cure cancer, we bombarded JW and his family with emails and dinners, we tried to be strong for our students. We thrived on the hope that he – WE – would beat this thing. I know this energy helped him through what I’m sure he knew (even then) was a ridiculously long shot. 

There was a quiet day in November when Ryan and I were discussing the incredible amount of money the WWA community had raised for JW, and how awesome it was to see people come together in such a way. And then we agreed that it probably still wouldn’t change the outcome…because we knew that all the money and support in the world wouldn’t save our friend. How is it possible to have known this? I think it was partly my own fatalistic mentality, and partly the fear of hoping beyond reality and logic. 

But the hope crept in. It kept all of us afloat, and buoyed our spirits when John was approved and found a match for a transplant. Hope was ever present as we made plans – to hang out with him, to get him back in the classroom, to count on him to be around for a long time now. It was this hope that blocked the inevitable; it’s what allowed us all to be blindsided by cruel fate. 

I never saw it coming. That sounds ridiculous now – I mean, I’d convinced myself that this was a possibility was back in the beginning – how could I not have expected it? How did I not notice that his hospital stay was abnormally long and that this was problematic? How did I not realize that the sporadic updates meant he wasn’t doing well? And on the day that I sent the poems our students had written, how did I not recognize my internal urgency to get those poems to him as a very clear sign that he didn’t have much time left to read them? 

My regrets aren’t about his final hours; I didn’t get to say goodbye personally and hold his hand, but I don’t regret that. Kasey delivered my message and made him smile, and it warms my heart to know this. But I do regret not writing him more often, and not visiting him on the other 17 straight days he was in the hospital. I regret that we never had that Monty Python night. Mostly, I regret not telling him how much he inspired me and how much I learned from him. I regret that he never knew how much I appreciated his friendship and that I thought he was an incredible person. 

We are left now to fill a raw, gaping hole in our school, and in our hearts. Yes, life goes on, but the puzzle is missing a key piece. We talked today about who will fill that hole, and how s/he won’t ever quite fit because it won’t be JW. I know I have to give this person a chance, but it feels like I just woke up without my thumbs or something. How is life ever going to feel normal again when I don’t have my thumbs?!?!?!

JW was the glue that filled the cracks in our middle school team. He led by example; his calm strength served to balance our team dynamic. It’s funny because I think we all learned from him and relied on him in ways that we didn’t even recognize until he was gone. I miss his laugh and his classroom light illuminating a dark hallway at 6:00 a.m. I miss the advice he would give in a way where it just felt like a great philosophy. I miss his enthusiasm for teaching and how it radiated off of his face each day. I miss his surprise visits, and his monthly emails – always a message to the kids and one small one for me. I read through them all again last week, and found one where he had written, “You are amazing and I am happy to call you my friend.” 

JW, the feeling is mutual. I miss you, buddy – now and always.