Saying Goodbye to a Teacher, Mentor, Friend


I attended a memorial service yesterday for a friend who demanded that it not be a sad occasion. She told her family she didn’t want a funeral, but a memorial service during which people shared happy thoughts and memories. That’s what she got.

As I sat in the pew – close to the front because I knew she’d disapprove of our sitting in the back – I was suddenly 17, instead of 53. You see, when I was a little kid, church was a special thing, an event reserved for when my folks felt it was time to get back into church, so it was sporadic to say the least. I never felt I belonged in one, particularly.

So this boyfriend I had in high school kept pestering me to go to something called MYF with him. It seemed important, a regular part of his week. It happened on Sunday evenings in his little Methodist church. In fact, the M and the Y and the F stood for Methodist Youth Fellowship. I finally went, and, at first, I felt out of place as I usually did. To tell the truth, I don’t remember much about those first visits or when I tentatively began attending regular church services with the BF and his family, but most of my early memories of attending MYF and church include a lady named Betty.

Betty made everyone feel like they belonged. Betty made everyone feel special. That was her gift. When Betty was the MYF Leader, we always had food to munch on, we always had a lesson that devolved into discussion that may or may not have had to do with the lesson, but Betty recognized the importance of whatever it was we needed to talk about, and she helped us get something from it.

One of my favorite things about having Betty as a youth leader was that at Christmastime, her gift to each of us was to let us come into her ceramic shop – she ran classes out of a shop in her big garage – and choose two items to make as gifts to give. We created, we had fun, we ate, we talked and in the end, we gave.

Betty was often in charge of things that involved the children, whether it was the children’s Christmas program, MYF Sunday where we led the service, Sunday school for all ages that weren’t adult, or Vacation Bible School. And she wasn’t a micro-manager at all! She let us imagine and create and do and she supported us in all of it.

During the service this afternoon, someone mentioned that structure was not her thing, and that’s true. The table in her Sunday School classroom was usually strewn with paints, glue, markers, craft sticks, chenille stems and Twizzlers, maybe a package of cookies. But I know that was a plus because she let kids create out of the chaos. Nothing was off limits; no idea was a bad one. The beauty in that was that we all got to work things out for ourselves and learn through experience.

I say we, but later on, I experienced all of this through my sons. Our sons – I married that boyfriend. And his church, if you haven’t figured it out by now, became my church. Our boys were the students in her class, the actors in the play, the responsive readers during service, the ushers during MYF Sunday. At this point, I was appreciating it from a parent’s point of view.

But she didn’t let me stop at being just a parent. Before I knew it, I was helping with Vacation Bible School. Her diabolical plan had worked. A short time later, I was in charge of Vacation Bible School and on a church committee or two, and it was she helping me with whatever I needed from her.

I carried these things I learned from Betty (I don’t know if she ever studied Maslow, but she knew she had to fill a belly before a kid could hear a lesson) into the next stage of my life as a teacher. I know I have to meet basic needs before a student can process what I have to teach. I know I gain trust by looking a child or teen in the eye and listening. I know that if I respect those kids and what they know and have experienced, I will likely be respected back.

As I started the process of college classes as an adult with a family, then as I became a teacher with all the demands of time and energy, I drifted away from attending church; I drifted away from those people who had been our family and support for so long. But I carried the lessons and the love I received with me.

Yesterday I said goodbye to a teacher, a mentor and a friend, and I regret that she may never have known how much I learned from her and how much she meant to me.

About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

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