Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Fallout

A week has passed since I learned about Greg Ritter’s death, and it still affects me rather profoundly. Forcing myself into work the next morning, all I could think about as I walked through the doors at Emmaus was: How are the students at Freedom holding up as they drove past East Hills, past the school where Ritter guided them into successful, confident leaders?

As I dropped off my lunch in the faculty room, a colleague asked me what was wrong. My sadness easily revealed itself. I burst into tears, but I wept not for my own sake, or even for Ritter’s. Rather, I sobbed for them, those left behind. I could not begin to fathom the massive dark cloud that shadowed those teenagers I know, and I longed to be there to help them grieve, to make some sense of this great misfortune.

Since then, I began to closely read the Facebook page that they dedicated to his remembrance, to the commitment of his pedagogical mission, to the tremendous influence he was to hundreds of students for more than a dozen years. Their responses were heart-felt, genuine, mature, introspective. They would've done him damn proud.

Days later many of them filled the Allentown funeral home to pay tribute. Some wore their Monagacci shirts, long faded, seemingly shrunken by growing bodies. They laughed, wept, reflected, recalled how they thrived in that wonderful year of 7th grade, that rite of adolescent passage in Monagacci that so many of them found to simply be the best year out of their entire public-school career.

Despite his untimely leaving, Greg Ritter's death brought them all together—individuals who still linger in their innocent teens to those in their mid-20s who now deal with new pressures of adulthood—to share this common bond, to contemplate how people come into our lives and how we lose touch, no matter how important they seem at the time. In no way did Ritter ever create the same effect in my own life as he did with those kids. But he definitely inspired and influenced my own tenets as an educator, and I regret that I didn’t take the time out of my own frenetic life to somehow tell him that within the past year, most likely the darkest and loneliest of his life.

The small lining that comes from such a tragedy is that we, those left with a void, recognize how we must grow from this tremendous loss, how we must take the time to reconnect with those who have molded us, even in the slightest sense. Thanks to someone posting my blog on the dedication page, former students have re-entered my life, many of them now parents, business owners, college graduates, military personnel, teachers. I don’t need them to tell me that I helped change them, whittled them in some small sense, if any. Knowing that they have lead successful, fulfilling lives—and that they are making the best of this situation—is enough for me.

So as much as he impressed upon them in middle school, Greg Ritter taught them a final life lesson. But it's a lesson that's left for each of us to interpret on our own, and to grow from it.

Out of all of this, I had—for the first time—a vicious comment posted to my blog. I no longer get paid to write, so I don’t care if people disagree with me. Fortunately, I am surrounded by those who support me, who tell me that it doesn’t matter what I write. That they just want me to write about whatever or whoever inspires me.

And I will. No matter how small, no matter how distant, no matter how contrarian my life and thoughts are to someone else.

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