Last year, Andee Poulos, an 8th grader at our school unexpectedly suffered a brain injury brought on by an undetected congenital condition, arteriovenous malformation. Although hospitalized in a coma many months, she is now conscious and home. However, she remains unable to speak and generally immobile. An honors student and a three sport athlete, the young woman is beloved by her school community. In her honor, the father of a fellow classmate began a foundation, Andee’s Army, whose mission is “to provide goods and services to children and their families who are receiving medical treatment and care for non-traumatic brain injuries.”
Andee returned with her parents and the foundation’s director to our Upper School chapel the Thursday before break to share awareness of the foundation’s goals. In a wheelchair, her body unable to sit fully upright, Andee could not communicate with her now 9th grade classmates. In fact, she only appeared briefly at the service. Nevertheless, her presence, her parents’ commitment to her rehabilitation, and the foundation’s mission all profoundly affected the students.
When the bell rang after chapel, my students, an all girls 9th grade literature class, slowly made their way back to the Upper School. Although they typically enter my class in mid-conversation with one another, on Thursday they arrived solemn and quiet. It seemed ridiculous to begin my planned lesson. Instead, I asked if anyone would like to talk about Andee or how they were feeling. Some of the girls simply began crying; others shared their bewilderment at how this could have happened. Since I didn’t know Andee, I asked them to tell me about her – her personality, her closest friends, her family, her favorite places and things. She is clearly loved and deeply missed.
We’re in the season of Lent, a time of reflection and soul searching. It sometimes seems like a dark period on the Christian calendar, commemorating Jesus’ own withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days. When one of the girls asked me how it’s possible to make sense of what happened, I told her what I believe: it isn’t. I’ve shared with them my own story in our year together – my mother’s suicide, my husband’s death in a car accident when our child was two, my own sense of doubt and distrust. Perhaps, some teachers and parents might feel that I shouldn’t permit such intimacy. But literature is replete with stories of loss, loneliness, and confusion. Shared deftly and purposefully, my own story can help them see that there are ways through the darkness.
I’ve written before on this blog about empathy (literally, “in feeling with”) as the pole star that guides my teaching. This break, I read Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a novella whose plot is simple: On July 20, 1714, “the finest bridge in all Peru” collapses and five people die. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan missionary, witnesses their deaths, and asks the age-old question, “Why did this happen?” He believes that by exploring each individual life, he can determine why these five in particular died. His six-year quest only leads him to more questions and ultimately to his own death. Wilder himself defined the central question of the novel: “Is there a direction and meaning in (life) beyond the individual’s own will?” The novella’s last paragraph reinforced my belief that there are no definitive answers to life’s questions, and that the only effective defenses against fear, doubt, and confusion are courage and love:
But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.