In the years I’ve been teaching Effective Speaking, and more recently English Composition at Castleton State, I have been touched many times by the personal stories students have shared in class. It truly is a privilege to bear witness to the events that shape their lives. Normally in a semester one or more students bring me to tears. Their “Memorable Character” stories often are laden with gratitude, sometimes with pain, but always with heartfelt sincerity. A while back, one student in particular had a profound impact on me, and her story set the tone for the rest of the semester.
It was the first day of class in Effective Speaking and sometimes I ask students to draw then describe three objects that are personally meaningful and say something about themselves. We were making our way around the circle sharing drawings and stories and we got to Aimee. She was a very shy and soft-spoken young woman who talked about her scrapbook from her senior year in high school, pictures of a family trip, then a memento from her mother who had fought, and recently lost, a courageous battle against ovarian cancer.
As she revealed more details of her story, I looked down at my class roster and silently read her last name. “I knew your mother,” I blurted out, attempting to swallow the lump that was welling up in my throat.
Not only did I know Aimee’s mother, but I taught with her at Rutland Middle School. We even spent three days at a teaching conference in Providence, R.I., carpooling and sharing a hotel room. During those three days, Cindy talked a lot about her daughter and how proud she was of her accomplishments. I felt like I knew Aimee even before actually meeting her.
But here was Aimee on the first day of the semester sharing her story of her mother who had died only a couple of weeks ago. As synchronicity would have it, just two days before I had learned of Cindy’s death when I ran into another teacher from RMS. The last time I talked with her she had been hopeful about beating this deadly form of cancer, although she was realistic about her chances. While some people pleaded with her to slow down and relinquish some of her activities, she was determined to live her life to the fullest. While faced with a significant life-threatening challenge, she refused to be defined as a victim. Obviously, she had passed that message on to her daughter.
It seemed like a strange, and yet very positive coincidence, that Aimee ended up in my class. As it turns out, there were several students in that group who had endured significant losses. One student had lost both parents; others had lost grandparents and friends. Yet they were not a gloomy bunch. Aimee’s example of grace in the face of adversity set the stage for the rest of the semester. She was truly a living example that healing from loss is possible, and that life, after all, does go on.