During my career as a school counselor, I worked in public and private settings and saw the best and worst of humanity-natural born scholars, engaged students, supportive families, and inspiring administrators balanced by inept parenting, teachers who should never have entered the profession, profoundly disabled students, unfathomable meanness, and questionable leadership. During one tremendously formative year, I worked as a counselor at a small Catholic high school in the Greater Boston area which served a mostly urban population from all parts of Boston and its closest suburbs. Sadly, it had attained a negative reputation and was the object of some bad press in the local newspaper, claiming ongoing, systemic drug issues in the student body. Years before, I had applied for and had been offered a job at the same school, which I declined, to work in the public school where I had interned. With a major crisis at hand, I was contacted and recruited for the position by the administration, in the hopes that my experience would be a means to stabilize the situation. I considered taking the position as a vocation versus a job since my son was a student there and I was taking a twenty five percent pay cut from my public school job. This decision changed the course of my very settled, orchestrated life.
While I only worked in this role for one year, it was an intense experience. In the course of ten months, my mother unexpectedly passed away, my son was in the throes of teenage and pre-adult issues, and the school itself was in financial difficulty, with its student body shrinking rapidly. I witnessed the expulsion of emotionally, behaviorally, and financially compromised students, who clearly would have benefited from the support and message of a religious education, but the school lacked the resources to address these issues. In one of my most difficult situations, a pregnant senior, months away from graduation, was sent packing, not because of her condition, but because her parents had thrown her out and she could not pay her tuition. My heart broke for her, yet I had no influence to alter the decision. That spring, on the evening of Holy Thursday, a tenth grader overdosed, just after having assisted as an altar server at the vigil in her parish. While she survived, she remained permanently in a vegetative state. Sadly, her boyfriend, from another local, all-male, Catholic school, was not as fortunate and died that evening in his sleep. In the meantime, the school staff and administration was shaken by the Boston Archdiocese’s decision to get out of the business of running high schools as it dealt with its own issues due to the mismanagement of the clergy scandal. As a byproduct, the archdiocesan teachers’ union was disbanded, causing a work-to-rule atmosphere and the start of a mass exodus. Teachers, some of whom had spent their entire careers at the school and were committed to Catholic education and the vocation of teaching, now looked toward the future with fear and sadness. All the while, I questioned my decision and plotted my escape.
Today, a lifetime and a career later, I sorted through some old notes and papers that had accumulated in my back of my 2018-19 (educator style) personal calendar. Between the last page and the cover, I found an email, dated July 14, 2004, sent to all of the teaching staff of this Catholic school by a colleague. Jay was in his mid-twenties at the time yet he had lived a lot of life, including a stint in the Army immediately after college. He had graduated from this high school ten years earlier and was a “Golden Boy” with the staff, not just due to his history but because he was a fine person. Warm, affable, energetic, genuine, and kind, Jay was the glue. Always maintaining and projecting a positive attitude as the walls of his alma mater, turned employer, crumbled around him, he trussed up the shaky emotions of the staff with his unbridled zest for life. Most importantly, the kids loved him; he was an inspirational teacher, mentor, and role model as he strove to do his best for them. He is one of my fondest memories of this challenging experience and his words, fifteen years later, on a gray, rainy morning that matched my own psyche, were a blessing and a souvenir.
In his note, Jay graciously thanked us for the wonderful experience that he had, both as a student and a teacher at this school, and acknowledged the contribution of the teachers, past and present, to the lives of the students whom they prepared for life after high school. He also informed us that he would be leaving to accept a job outside of education, and that his only regret was that he did not work with each of us longer. Encouraging us to stay in contact, he assured us that, if he could ever be of help to any of us, he would be at the ready. In closing, he wished us “the best of luck and healthy and happy days” and hoped to hear from us soon. I was truly touched by Jay’s sincerity and printed the email, tucking it into my agenda book, where it found a new home in each successive year and calendar.
In the fall of 2004, I received word that Jay had been diagnosed with cancer, the bad kind, and his prognosis was not good. His condition deteriorated quickly and in a few short months, he died. His death invoked profound sadness in me, equal to the pleasure in life that his upbeat, joyous nature had given. In twenty-eight years, Jay had managed to connect deeply with so many, to serve his country honorably, and leave behind a legacy of kindness and grace. His short life reminds me of a meteor blazing through the sky, provoking awe in those lucky enough to get a glimpse. His spirit glowed with such a bright light that perhaps was too bright to endure. I knew I was lucky then, and have been reminded of my good fortune to have known Jay every time the rumpled and dog-eared printed email surfaces to feed my memory and soul.
I often think of Jay. He was a person for whom everyday was a mission dedicated to others, imbued with positivity, energy, and joy. He lived without knowing that he would be cheated out of so many life experiences; yet, he lived as if every day was a gift, even without that foresight. I fantasize that he died knowing that he changed the world, even if just a small corner of it, in a short lifetime. His work in life was done quickly and well. His memory prompts the lyrics of the song, “Vincent” by Don McLean: “this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”. And as I question the why of Jay’s short life, maybe that is the answer.