I entered our neighborhood Panera Bread Co. with a friend and was greeted with a bright smile and eyes that lit up his face.
“Michael!” (It helps when former students wear a name tag.)
Warm memories of this young man and his constant companions in 8th grade come rushing back. A group of smart boys who worked so well together!
Michael looks at me and grins, “Mrs. Souder”. I wasn’t Dr. Souder back in 2003 when Michael was an 8th grader.
“Oh, I know. We love Michael. He’s our baby,” she answered with a mother’s pride.
I love to run into former students, especially when they are doing well. But three weeks later a gathering of former students found young men with few words, shedding tears with no embarrassment.
Last week the teacher network spread the tragic news — Michael died with no warning!
When Michael didn’t come in to work.Thursday morning, someone called the family. One of his brothers went over to Michael’s apartment and found him in his bed, dead. A seizure in his sleep apparently caused this early death.
As a parent of a 21 year old who died unexpectedly, the scene at the funeral home is too familiar. Just being with the team of teachers who taught Michael gives me moral support and courage.. We no longer teach in the same schooll (or in my case, no longer teach) but are forever linked to those 8th graders we taught from 2000 to 2008.
Michael belonged to a group of 8th grade boys who rarely if ever displayed that 8th grade “jerk” persona. They were energetic, enthusiastic, eager students I remember them sitting with desks pushed together, heads bent over paper and books as they researched some topic and usually completed the assignment first. They kept me on my toes, always ready for something new. They always had a good time but never at the expense of others or their learning.
As we visited parents and former students and told Michael stories, I thought, “How proud his parents must be”.
How would parents want their 23 year old son to be remembered?
With warm feelings of joy, knowing he gave a smile to friends and customers and strangers. To know that his 8th grade basketball coach valued him for his energy, encouragement, and sense of fair play.
Eighth grade boys are not known for these qualities. Most people shudder when I tell them I taught 8th grade for ten years, but I loved the age because of their potential. At some point during the school year most of the smart-aleck, defiant, or tough guy bravado disappears, and a more mature teenager emerges.
Twenty-three is too soon to gather friends and family to say good-by. But the stories told about Michael brought smiles and laughter to many faces yesterday. His legacy is not one of college degrees or a clear path for a career. His mom laughed as she told how close he came to completing a degree in accounting. She asked him, “Couldn’t you just finish it up?”
But he knew he would never use it, so why waste his time? She knew as we all did that Michael needed to be with people, serving, sharing his joy.
You only had to watch him at Panera to know that this young man was manager material. He wasn’t just a “put on a happy face for the customer” kind of guy. Michael was sincere and genuine.
I am so glad and thankful that I had Michael as a student.
I am thankful for his time on earth and his legacy of caring for others.
I am thankful for his joy — you just couldn’t be around Michael without smiling.