This week held a first experience for me: attending a funeral of a former student. I wouldn’t say this was something I was ever looking forward to having to do, but knew it would happen eventually. It was definitely one of the most emotional experiences of my teaching career, but the experience has also held some surprising encouragement and blessings.
Net was not technically one of my students in 4th grade, but he was a part of a very close group of six students, three of whom I taught, who stuck close together and acted more like family than friends. I was close to all of them, claiming the other three as ‘mine’ even though I didn’t technically teach them. When this group went on to fifth grade, they would wait for each other at the front of the school almost daily and come down the hallway as a group to say good morning to their old 4th grade teachers, even on the last day of school, right before their 5th grade graduation. Then they went on to middle school, continuing to stay close, and were so good about keeping in contact with their former teachers, coming back occasionally to say hello.
When they got to high school and opened Facebook accounts, I was able to stay in contact with these guys while living in Africa. I was so proud to see them growing into such amazing young men and women and still continuing to be such supportive friends to each other. This was especially put to the test when Net was diagnosed with cancer and endured what would turn out to be years of ups and downs, treatments and times of remission, pain and joy.
When I returned from Botswana, I spent a bit of time substitute teaching to earn some extra money and to see former students. During this time last spring, I was able to spend a couple of days at the high school, catching up with many former students and staring in awe at how grown-up they were! I saw Net looking healthy and happy and felt great relief.
Unfortunately Net’s battle with cancer was not over yet. It returned last fall and he began another long, painful battle. I watched from afar as this group of students, now juniors in high school, continued to stand together, loving and supporting Net in a way that only family could really do. Because of a scheduling conflict, I sadly missed the opportunity to see the gang together at their spring band concert, where Net was able to attend and hear the beautiful piece of music the band had commissioned to be composed for him, entitled “Net Soaring”. I smiled sadly at the pictures the kids posted of them all together after the concert, Net braving a smile through the physical pain he was enduring. Three weeks after this concert, one of the students sent me the heart-breaking news that Net had passed on from this life, leaving the pain of cancer and many, many loved ones behind.
I sat with three friends at Monday’s funeral, all teachers who had taught Net and were also impacted by his beautiful life. We listened to student after student talk about how much Net had meant to them, how selfless and caring he was, and how he had taught them to never take life for granted. I watched five 17 year olds stand up together and each talk about their best friend, sharing funny and sometimes poignant memories. Together, they so beautifully illustrate what true friendship should look like.
Although my heart was broken this week and I walked into Monday’s funeral with a very heavy heart, I somehow left feeling comforted, inspired, and so very proud of those precious students. I’m thankful for the opportunity to have known Net and to have been even a small part of his beautiful life. And I love that I’ve had the privilege of seeing a group of best friends grow up together and love and support each other in such a powerful way, demonstrating what true love and friendship really looks like. Net will be so greatly missed, but his legacy will live on, especially in the lives of the five best friends he left behind.