The Past Tense

Earlier today, I wrote about relationships with students and how crucial it is to what we do as educators. In thinking about relationships, I can’t help but look back on the relationships in my own life that mean the most to me. I recently got married, and am appreciating a new relationship in my life – one of being a wife. My relationship as a daughter to my parents is one that I will always have, of course. My friendships with a variety of people I’ve met and interacted with have also shaped who I am. Teacher-student relationships are an important aspect of my past and current work, collegial relationships will always play a part in what I do.

But one relationship is unique and special and unlike any other in the world – the sibling relationship. Tomorrow will be eight years since I lost my older brother, my only sibling. The circumstances around his death were tragic and shocking; he was killed in a motorcycle accident on his way home from work. At the time, I was 23 and living in Hawaii. My brother was 26 and was living in Florida. Driving home from work, my cell phone rang and the instant I saw “Home” on the caller ID, I knew something was wrong as it was almost midnight in Michigan. The entire conversation I had with my parents is both vivid and blurry. I don’t remember the specific words that were said, but I remember this feeling of being lost, of helplessness, and of wanting to take charge. I kept thinking if I don’t say it out loud, it won’t be true. If I just can get home, everything will be fine. This is a mistake. He’s going to call me any second and say it wasn’t him, it was someone else.

As the years have passed since Tony has been gone, I have changed and grown in immeasurable ways. I became a teacher. I ran 3 half marathons. I graduated with a Master’s Degree. I bought a house, became a wife. One thing, however, that has never changed for me, is the difficulty of speaking about my brother in the past tense.

How do you explain who a person was to the world? How do you tell those who never met him about the way his smile warmed you from the inside? How do you explain the depth of kindness, the big-heartedness, the work ethic he possessed? What words exist for defining the defender, the protector, the antagonizer, the schemer that he was?

How do you say, “I used to have a brother”?

“I used to be a sister.”

We think there will always be time, that we can tackle that challenge tomorrow, we can tell that student good job the next time he does something extraordinary, we can remember to smile at the shy girl next week when you see her again. We think we will have time to learn more about our students, to make an impact on them, to reach them in a new way. As teachers, we are overwhelmed by all the things we don’t have time for. More often than we should, we cut students off, we tell them “we have to move on, I’ve gotta get through this lesson.” We take the time away from our students who want to share who they are, what they are feeling, their questions, their creativity. We take it away from them because we think we don’t have the time.

The truth is, the time is not ours.

There is never enough time and there is too much time.

Too many years have passed without my big brother in this world.
Too much time has gone by that I have not had my sibling with me to share life experiences with.
There was not enough time for me to tell him how much he meant to me.
There was not enough time for us to grow together as adults.

Time has taken away the raw edge of the pain of losing Tony. The time we did have together was filled with all the convolutions and complications that only a sibling can understand. You love and hate this person with a fiery depth. You are embarrassed by them. You hurt for them. You fight for them. You make fun of them. You align with them and you throw them under the bus. And you miss them, for all of time.

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