Ten years ago today, a group of 6th graders in Leawood, KS, lost a dear friend in a four-wheeler accident. I would meet those students about five months later when I became their 7th grade teacher. I wrote this piece and submitted it to Chicken Soup (that’s another story for another day), but I loved that it was shared among the families that knew him best. I dedicate it today to the PSMS 7th grade class of 2000-2001.
I sat alone in a Fazoli’s Italian restaurant, the aroma of fettuccine alfredo rising from my half-eaten plate. Two high school girls at a table near me complained very loudly that it was past time for the breadstick server to come around. Their impatience might not have struck me so deeply on any other night, but tonight it did. A short while later, Sean, a student from the middle school where I teach seventh grade approached me and said “Hi, Mr. Burden.” Sean wasn’t even my student, but his friendly and respectful attitude was a welcome contrast to the selfishness of the girls near my table. We bantered for a few minutes, and he returned to the line with his family. Sounds pretty ordinary, doesn’t it? Then why was I soon flooded with tears, breathing a prayer expressing how much I loved kids?
The key to understanding my tumble of emotions that night lies in knowing where I had been half an hour before. I had been at a memorial service listening to student after student share tender and sometimes painful memories of a 12-year old classmate killed some seven months earlier in a four-wheeler accident. Bret was a popular student, an outstanding football player, wrestler, and baseball player. Beyond that, though, students shared how Bret’s disarming smile and infectious friendliness brightened every conversation. These kids were clearly and profoundly touched by his life, and death, and the ache was still very sharp in many of their hearts. It was the first time since the funeral these students had formally gathered to remember Bret.
Before going inside the memorial held at Bret’s former elementary school, students wrote messages on paper links to be added to a chain hung on a tree planted in his memory. A lantern passed among those gathered provided a moment for each person to think of Bret or offer a short prayer. Inside, one young lady sang “Testify to Love” by Christian musical group Avalon, sharing how Bret’s life testified to his own faith. Another sang the Mariah Carey song “Hero,” which was also featured in a video montage of Bret’s life. Bret’s football teammates reflected on how Bret’s courageous attitude exemplified their 6th grade team slogan “Once a Warrior, Always a Warrior.” Several were too choked up to continue speaking, including his close friend who watched Bret die. Almost twenty students shared their contributions to a memory book. Nearly everyone, including teachers, students, parents, and Bret’s family, left with the sting of tears fresh on their cheeks.
I went to the memorial thinking I had never met this student. This is my first year teaching in this school, and the accident happened last school year. The tale of how I ended up here would be too time-consuming to elaborate, but I can say that I feel God’s hand was in it. The opportunities I’ve had here have been unprecedented. More than a dozen students from my school are now part of a weekly off-campus Bible study I help lead. I doubt they would have been this open had not the pain of their loss opened them to thoughts of death and what lies beyond. All that is to say that I thought I had never met this amazing person. I thought.
What I realized that chilly evening was that I had in fact met this remarkable young man. I had met him through Sean’s unusual maturity in the restaurant. I met him through 12- and 13-year-old guys unafraid to express love for each other. I met him through the large number of students signing up to do community service, many in his memory. I met him through a sense of family among the seventh-graders I teach. I met him through the strength of many students facing their own struggles. Though I may never have met him physically, I see Bret every day. His extraordinary life has impacted many others. He touched more people in his twelve years on earth than some people do in a lifetime.
I shared my experience with my students in class the next day. Eyes filled, hugs were shared, and expressions mirrored grief still too fresh to talk about. I told them that I wanted my life to be as extraordinary as Bret’s. I encouraged them to live lives that would leave a mark on those around them. That would honor Bret’s memory, it would make their parents proud, and it would make me feel that my position as a teacher was more than just a job.
Maybe you met someone today in that smile you really needed, or in that act of kindness you didn’t expect. Maybe you met someone today you never thought you knew. Look for those reminders – they are there! I have learned many lessons from young teens in the three months I’ve been at the school. Many of them spring from the pain of loss. Bret won’t go to Prom, win State in football, graduate high school, get married or have kids, but he will live for many years. Once a warrior during his twelve years, he will always be a warrior through his legacy. This young hero quietly speaks to me even after he left the earth. Who will meet you after you’re gone?