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Elegy for a Student

I had a new experience as a teacher today that nobody thought to warn me about, and while I understand why, that doesn't make it any easier.

This afternoon I was talking with my mom about my inspiring former student, Gail, and since I was home I decided to check in on her Facebook page - only to discover that Gail passed away this summer.  Gail was my student in early 2010 and I have carried her with me ever since, sharing what she taught me with others and fondly remembering her bravery.

Let me tell you why I will always remember Gail.

She was one of my older students, older than me by just over twenty years, and she brought her experience, confidence, and professionalism to every session with her.  Like many of my students who are returning to school, she knew the value of her education and was determined to get the very most out of it, and she made that clear early on.

Gail stood out from the start for several other reasons, as well.  The first was her polished exterior.  Not a day went by that she didn't show up in her best suits, almost like she was heading to church instead of English class.  I admit, at times she made me feel underdressed in a delightful way, and her presence encouraged me to make regular use my best gear instead of saving it for later.

Her alert, direct, and inquisitive nature was another pleasure.  Her mind never seemed to wander from the lesson at hand; even when she was having trouble understanding something, her eyes were always on me or whoever else was talking.  She asked refreshingly straightforward questions and was not afraid to do so, which I hope helped set the example for her fellow students.  She was honest when she was stumped by something and she kept at it until she got somewhere.

One day, during an everyday sort of lesson, we were talking about body image and gender expectations regarding appearance.  Makeup, hair, weight, dimensions - you know the drill.  Students usually have a lot to say about such things because many of them feel such pressures keenly.  But Gail spoke up in a way I could have never anticipated.

"I don't want to look glamorous," she insisted starkly, and much to everyone's immediate disbelief, given her perfect presentation just then.  "I just want to look like myself.  I just want to look normal."  She went on to explain that she had been wrestling with lupus for some time and that every day was a struggle to make herself appear the way she had before the disease had taken its toll.  She wore wigs because she'd lost her hair, she revealed (in a way that was more informational than ashamed I'm proud to say), and I think everyone expressed present their amazement.  None of us could tell, and all of us had admired her hair.

But Gail wasn't finished.  She said she worked extra hard every day to make herself at least look healthy again, and that it was one of her ongoing goals.  She went to it with makeup, her best clothes, and everything she had, and she was sure many others were struggling to do the same, whether anyone else knew or not.  We had to keep in mind that other people's struggles weren't just with society, or some fake media standard, or with some internal feeling of not being good enough.  There was so much more than that.

And that was also why she made sure to come to every class she could, no matter how bad she was feeling or how her symptoms were acting up.  She was bound and determined to finish what she'd started and to let nothing get in her way, and I had tears in my eyes well before she got to that part, but I was so proud and grateful for her testimony, which was not done to impress me or anybody else.  She had things to teach us that day, myself included, and the eyes of much younger people were on her, round, wide open, and amazed - admiring, aspiring, and impressed, as they should have been.

I was not the only one who learned immensely valuable things that day.
Others took a part of her away with them from that room, I assure you.

I am often humbled by the things students deign share with me and the class - the accomplishments, the tragedies, the struggles - but I was more than humbled then.  The worst of vanity died out in me that day.  I had a whole new way to look at myself in the mirror, and to look at everyone else as they passed, silently bearing their own crosses through their lives and keeping the worst to themselves.

I have kept Gail with me ever since.  I have told other classes her story and shared my continued amazement at her courage and strength.  She was kind enough to friend me on Facebook and though she didn't update much, I was glad to know she was there, still living and loving and fighting.  I see loving messages left by family and friends on her page now, and pictures, usually in large groups, of that woman I briefly knew.  And I feel sorry I didn't know her more, and that I didn't find out about her death until almost six months after the fact.

But more than that, I feel grateful to have known her at all, and for the profession that has brought me this new type of grief.  "But this is part of why I wanted to teach," I told my mom through tears.  "I wanted more than a job.  I wanted an experience."

I look forward to finding many more ways to continue to enrich others with what Gail Tate-Jackson taught me.