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A Village to Guide Them


I recently attended the funeral services of a former student. She was 26 years old, in her final semester of completing her associate degree and had plans to earn a bachelor’s.  For this student with special needs, earning a college degree was one of her biggest dreams.

In his book Seasons of Sorrow, Tim Challies writes, “Death is the great interrupter. Death is the great interrupter because, far more often than not, it strikes when it’s least expected.  When death comes—and especially when it comes to the young—it interrupts plans, dreams, projects, and goals”.

When my colleagues and I heard the news of our students’ passing we were shocked and saddened – life interrupted.  I read through our email thread and noticed we held shared beliefs concerning this student. We remembered her passion for learning, drive for survival, participation in the activities she loved such as writing, singing, and dancing as well as boldly sharing her passions with others.

I scrolled through my emails to find the last notes she had written to me.  Sometimes she would wish me happy Mother’s Day, invite me to one of her on campus performances, share a poem she was writing, or confide in me when she was experiencing a loss of hope.

As I sat at her funeral services, I watched her family, friends, and loved ones, former teachers, including the President of our college pay respects to a daughter, sister, friend, cousin, and student.  Both the Friday evening viewing and the Saturday service were well attended.  The stories I heard of my student were like the stories my colleagues shared.  At the end of the Saturday service, in shared grief my supervisor and I embraced, and she said, “I always thought my relationship with Clara was special, but I see she shared her light with everyone she met.”  “Yes!” I exclaimed in agreeance.

Clara’s funeral services reminded me, that as educators, in the frenzied pursuit to transport our students along the conveyor belt towards graduation, we can forget, minimize, or are unconscious of two essential elements of schooling, (1) the village that surrounds our students and (2) the brief moment of light or life our students bring to our lives.

As I watched Clara’s family and friends, in this space of grief, I became conscious of her existence not just as an individual but as part of a community – that others were also invested in the fulfillment of her dreams. I was impressed by the realization that as educators when we treat our students well, we are serving or nurturing not just an individual but a community who is depending on our support. Our support is invaluable whether that student lives at home with their biological parents, in foster care, shelters, group homes, or are homeless.  Students exist within a community, and they are often silently asking for this village to guide them.

Like my supervisor, I also became conscious of the light or life Clara brought to our lives.  It was not just the impact we made in her life but the impact she made on ours.  Not just what we taught her but what she was meant to teach us. The presence of our students on our campuses and in our classrooms is not accidental. Our campuses and classroom spaces are incubators for collective growth. We are meant to share our light or life with each other so that we can flourish.

It becomes essential then, that we cherish the presence of each student – our fun and difficult moments.  Students often only share four months or 180 eighty days of a year of their precious lives with us.  Our togetherness transcends the curriculum we must teach them and the convocations for which we are preparing them.

Here is an excerpt from the last poem Clara shared with me on July 10, 2023, her funeral service was less than a month later.  The title of this article comes from this poem.

I am the change
I will fight for what you need
Mental illness is a dangerous disease
We need to help each other to do what’s right
Nothing else matters but you
You are the reason why
We should strive to succeed to
better our own lives.
Life is short
We must soar high
In times of sorrow and pain
I will help you find a way to a better day
I am here for you whenever
you need a helping hand
Bottling up everything you feel inside
will not solve anything
It is within that the light will shine through
If there’s a will there’s always a way
Without the Lord and your village to guide you
It is impossible for you to find the light through the darkness.

Clara reminds us, as educators, not to take our students for granted, to be kind and generous, to live our lives to the fullest spending time participating in activities we love and loving well those in my sphere.  Her impact on our college community was felt deeply.  A scholarship has been created in her name and there are plans to confer her degree in memoriam at the 2024 commencement service.  Her light, life, and legacy will remain with us.  She would have been very proud.