Today my friend Joe would have turned 41 but instead of singing ‘happy birthday’ we’re mourning him. Joe passed away last June in a car accident. I wrote this the week after he died and couldn’t imagine doing life without him. That reality is still hard to swallow nine months later.
We spent the weekend doing things my friend Joe would have loved. That made it all the more bittersweet to think he’s no longer here to enjoy them.
Teaching middle school is an odd experience. You spend the majority of your day with little-to-no adult contact. So when you get those stolen moments away from kids: during a passing period, at lunch, or on your prep period, you feel almost giddy about interacting with adults. It’s during those moments that you bond. You bond over crazy kids, bad bosses, inappropriate jokes, and what you did last weekend when you escaped this place.
This profession is wearing, unglamorous, and mostly thankless. It takes a ridiculous person to choose to teach middle schoolers. They are awkward and gross and unsure. The good news is they’ll grow out of it and be normal again soon. But we get them for those glorious years and try to love them when it’s hard to sometimes even like them.
The adults you’re in the trenches with become your dearest friends. Some better than others but there is this camaraderie that can only come from the test tube of middle school. You watch your fellow teachers get married, have kids, live lives and you’re doing it with them. You take a break from each other in the summer but still text and hang out occasionally. Then school starts again and you pick up right where you left off. No one understands the job unless you’re in it so the bond forms quickly and last forever.
During that break when someone leaves unexpectedly, like Joe did in a car accident, you reel in so many directions. It doesn’t seem possible that he’s gone because it’s summer break and you know when we all stumble back into school the week before kids return that he’ll be there setting up his classroom and making copies just like you. He’ll be walking down the hall with a smile and a kind word for everyone. On Fridays he’ll send out an all-staff email inviting everyone to a “meeting” at the local bar after school. And when Valentine’s Day comes, he’ll hand out Star Wars valentines and dollar carnations to all the female staff members. He can’t be gone because it was just summer break. We’re all gone over summer break, but we all come back. That’s how it works.
I believe you have to be a little bit off to teach middle school. It’s not a bad thing, but to survive in this job, you have to be a special breed. Joe was made to teach middle school. He was a middle-aged white guy who made up raps about putting your name on your paper, liked to walk down the hall with his python Monty (get it??) wrapped around his neck, spend all his money at the book fair buying kitty posters for male teachers, and occasionally came to school dressed as his “twin brother” that he pulled off so convincingly that former students now in college still believe he has an identical twin.
I don’t know how to do middle school without him. I don’t know how to eat lunch in the teacher’s lounge without him. I don’t know how to get in the building after a big snow without Joe driving his truck through the parking lot making paths for everyone. I don’t know how school is going to work now.
Joe was one of those annoying people that always had something nice to say about everyone even when you happened to be in the middle of complaining about them. He just couldn’t see the bad in people and was eternally optimistic. It was super-frustrating to want to whine about something and for Joe to try to spin it into something positive. JUST LET ME BITCH, I’d say.
When I first learned that Joe had died, I didn’t believe it. I immediately called his cell phone thinking it was just some kind of joke and he would answer the phone laughing and yell “PSYCH!” like he did with students.
But he didn’t answer.
He had been gone for about five hours at that point. I felt like I should have sensed it, that I should have known in my soul when a good friend had died. Like in the movies when a character pauses because of an unsettling feeling and later finds out something bad was happening at moment. I think life should be like that. I should be able to feel a little piece die inside when I lose someone important. It shouldn’t happen every day when I wake up and I realize all over again that he’s not here. It should be immediate and permanent, not something that I have to relearn every day.
That’s the hardest part about losing someone. The losing them over and over again.