Joe has been gone a month.
Which doesn’t make sense because there are still text messages he sent me on my phone. I still hear his laugh when I walk down the halls at school. I expect to see him when I turn the corner near his classroom. The dumb kitty posters he always bought me at our book fairs are still hanging in my room. For the rest of my teaching career I’ll have a cat dressed up in a ballerina costume on my wall. I can’t imagine taking it down.
Today is our first day with students and I should be having lunch with Joe. He should be having a salad or package of tuna because he is “planning on getting healthy and dropping a few pounds.” Then a few minutes before lunch is over, he should be making his way to the vending machine and grabbing a few bags of chips for dessert.
It’s what Joe did. Every day.
I was cleaning out my desk last week and came across an article from Ebony magazine he had clipped and given to me. Don’t ask me where he got it or why he was reading Ebony magazine because I don’t know. But the article was something about how black women can stand up to work-place bullying. He had gone through the whole article and crossed out every time it said “black woman” and replaced it with “ginger.”
He always told me I was his third favorite ginger.
We made good friends.
It was never hard to be friends with Joe. He was easy to get along with, generous, and helpful. If it happened to snow during the school day and you came out to a car that was clear of snow, it was probably cleaned off by Joe. If you needed a tool or something moved in your classroom, he was the first one to offer help. Joe was friends with everyone and could talk to anyone. It almost became a game for Tom and I; we’d say something not-nice about someone just to see what nice or positive thing Joe could come up with as a response. He saw the good in everyone, even when no one else could. It’s what made him a great teacher and an even better friend.
To think I’m living in a world where Joe Elder no longer exists breaks my heart fresh every morning. To know that he’s not coaching his son in soccer (“herding cats” as he called it) or planning a vacation with his wife Paula doesn’t seem real. I’m not sure you ever get used to losing someone like that. The hole is just too big.
Joe bought me a sticker a few years ago, he said he immediately thought of me when he saw it. I’m sure it’s offensive to some people, but I found it funny and Joe did too. He didn’t believe much in heaven and God and all the things that I do, but we were good friends anyway. We disagreed on a lot, but I didn’t love him any less because he didn’t think the same way I did. I’m a little rough around the edges and Joe always thought that was funny. That I could love God and be such a mess at the same time interested him.
Unfortunately as teachers we’ve had to bury students. More than I can count. We’d head to a showing after school or during summer break, mourning the student whose life was cut short, remembering how they were in class, sharing funny stories and the shock that comes with saying goodbye to a child. And then this summer the tables were turned. I stood in line with students of all ages as they said goodbye to their teacher. We stood together in a long line that snaked around the funeral home, into the lobby, and out to the sidewalk. It was painful and overwhelming seeing these hurting kids that loved Joe, knowing I couldn’t do anything about it, knowing no one could do anything about it.
I’d like to say there’s some big lesson I’ve learned from losing my friend Joe unexpectedly. But I’m not there yet. I can’t think of something that doesn’t sound cliched and generic. Things that would make Joe roll his eyes. Things that make me roll my eyes. Joe wasn’t here long, but he impacted so much. He lived well and loved well. He made people better. He made me better.