Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Once You're Mine"...a Tribute to a Fallen Student

"Once you're mine, you're mine for life!" I don't mean that lightly. In my career I've attended too many funerals for my students and former students, and I have another one to attend. Tj Cotrone was in my 9th and 10th English classes at Central...he was silly and goofy. He didn't know a stranger. But when it was time to work, he did.

He was in a magic group of kids at Central…I was their 9th grade teacher my first year at the school, and then the second year they gave me ONE 10th grade section…it was large: 30+. But over half of them had been in my class the year before. And they all knew each other. Our class bonded immediately. Rules and procedures were a breeze. My experienced kids brought the others into the fold immediately.

Which was a good thing. I’d had surgery weeks before the beginning of school, and made the decision to come back earlier than recommended. I didn’t want a sub to start the year with all my kids. So, I gave myself permission to take it slowly for several weeks.

One day, I was too sore to be on my feet, so I did what I never did: assigned the class a story to read and answer questions at the end. Don’t judge me. I was doing enough of that myself.

I told you they were magic, right? Every student got to work. The room was silent as they all read and referred back to the story. They wrote in complete sentences.

I stood up for a moment, and must have been unsteady, because I stumbled, and in doing so, knocked my teacher’s edition of the text off the corner of my desk. Do you know how heavy and big a teacher’s edition is? Imagine a bag of bricks the size of a cafeteria tray. Off it slid…into the trash can…which promptly tumbled over, with the book and trash which rolled out onto the floor.
One of my girls told me that they all inhaled at the same moment, leaving a temporary vacuum…Into that pristine silence was heard one voice: my voice. “Well, dammit!”

Not the worst thing I could have said…or have said. But, still. The grown-up in the room just cussed.

I looked out at 30+ faces and thought fast: “If any of you ever tell anyone I said that, I will deny it. Loudly. People will believe me!” If anything, that moment bonded us all even stronger. They saw their teacher was capable of big mistakes!

It became the running joke, not just for the year, but for all the years since when I would see a student. TJ was one of the ones who remembered and reminded me of my potty mouth every time we saw each other. He delighted in rubbing it in…

What I didn't know until later is how much TJ's friends valued his good heart. One friend said that TJ seemed to know when he needed a smile or a friendly word. What I DID notice is that TJ didn't let his own burdens erase his was a part of who he was. So many of his friends have shared stories about his uncanny ability to change their bad moods and support them through sadness. This makes me love him more.

He dated my daughter a couple of times in high school…they were good friends, and I loved them both. We all decided, with no words exchanged, that the relationships were not going to survive any romantic entanglements. And what we really valued was he friendship. We all three happily agreed to stay “Just friends.”

And we stayed friends.

On every last day of class, I told my students that I would NOW really explain the rules…that once you were mine, you were mine for life. I did not do 3AM phone calls and I did not do tuition, but I intended to be involved in their lives outside of our classroom. That I wanted to see them again. I wanted graduation pictures, and later, wedding and baby pictures. Kids knew I meant it.

After he graduated and became a police officer, he would stride into my classroom at North, in full uniform and stand there, buff and intimidating. Girls swooned and boys squirmed with envy. This picture from one of his friends captures that glad it also includes his badge. 

He often waited until close to the school year, so I could stand there, with him and share my rules with these new students. I fit neatly under his shoulder, and felt his bulletproof vest under his uniform. We stood there together and made the point that is now breaking my heart. "Once you're mine..."

TJ did his thing my last year in the classroom, staring down all my kids with that mock-serious face. We talked about a project he was passionate about: exposing merchants who sell beer to underage kids. He was helping keep our teens safe.

We hugged and I told him I loved him.

He loved talking about his little boy. He was so proud of his son...made sure he read with the boy every night. Kept me informed about his grades. My heart is broken for this child who will miss his daddy every day of his life.

We lost TJ today in a motorcycle accident. He had on his helmet, but the crash was too horrific for the helmet to save him.

Every Friday, since before I taught TJ, I would yell a Friday blessing to my students as the bell rang. I hoped to keep them safe. When TJ was in class, the blessing was short and to the point: “Be safe. Be smart. Be back on Monday.”

After I moved to North, I lost a student, and decided I needed a new blessing, and together my kids and I created the one I use, even now. Every Friday. I try to keep my kids safe.

"Take care of yourself. Take care of each other. Buckle up (or wear your helmet). Hug a dad or a mother. Tell someone you love them."

TJ, I love you. You are mine past death.