When I think of Chatham, Virginia, the little tobacco community where I began my teaching career twelve years ago, I think of many things: the little log cabin off Route 57 with the winding dirt driveway–the first home I ever owned; the pungent odor of fertilizer in the spring that lingered in the air for weeks; the brightness of the stars against a sky uninhibited by streetlights. Five years ago, I left it all for city life in Atlanta. But my heart has never left Chatham.
Mostly, when I think of Chatham, I think of my former students. I think about those chilly Friday night football games when they lugged their books into the stands and gathered around me in droves because they still wanted to talk about literature long after class was over. It was the first time in my life I’d ever felt like I mattered, and that I had anything positive to contribute to the world. I think of when we studied Beowulf, when we bravely wrote our own personal monsters on tiny slips of paper, and held hands as we buried them together in a box. I think of those after-school softball practices, the dull clink of bats, and the thick sand that was forever in my shoes. I think of all the mistakes I made in relationships back then, how young and naive I was, and all the things I wish I’d done differently as a teacher.
I also think of Blair. I was 23 when I was her teacher for senior English. She was 17. From the moment I met her, she was someone I knew I’d never forget as long as I lived. I’d always planned to remember everyone’s name and face, but as the years passed, and as I taught hundreds and hundreds more students, I slowly accepted that time had changed the clarity of my memory. But I didn’t forget Blair.
It didn’t take long from the moment Blair waltzed into my classroom–11 years ago now–to realize she was one of those rare people who ignites the room with her sheer presence. Blair danced in the hallway between classes, always a sly smile on her face as if she knew a secret no one else did. She recited music and poetry in common, everyday conversations. She wrote with a mastery of emotion and a wisdom far beyond her young years. She knew who she was long before most of us did, and she accepted those around her unconditionally. I never once heard her make a negative comment about anyone. Blair was more evolved than almost anyone else I knew in our small conservative town.
I never lost touch with Blair. Years after she was no longer my student and I was living in Atlanta, we developed a deep friendship. We were two gay women living in the South with tremendous shared experiences, and we understood the importance of holding onto that connection.
Last spring, I received a text from Blair. She was in an American Literature course.
I feel so old in school. I’m 28 years old, but I’m finally getting my life together, it read.
I had to laugh. For as much as Blair always knew who she was, she hadn’t yet figured out what she wanted to do with her life.
Come to my 10-year class reunion, her next text urged. She would be there, of course. She’d be the main event.
When I heard the news of Blair’s death, I frantically poured over all the texts we exchanged over the past few years. My mind raced with soundbites from our phone conversations, flashbacks of chaperoning her senior prom, from all the times I ate at Outback when she was a waitress there just to check up on her, and the shrillness of her laughter. Was there something I missed? Something we all missed? Why did she do it? This just couldn’t be.
Blair had a strong support group of family and friends. She never met a stranger. She was compassionate and generous. Sincere. Her heart and her mind were open to possibilities.
Shakespeare once wrote, “Take (her) and cut (her) out in little stars, and (she) will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night.”
This is how I will always think of you, Blair–as a person who shined brighter than most of us without even trying, and who taught us so much. I am a more authentic person because I met you. I teach tolerance and do not shy away from difficult or controversial issues. My heart is open. I’m not afraid.
I love you, Blair.