“we could live on the prairie”

During my very first year of teaching, I was charged with educating all 6th-12th grade students at a small private school in North Carolina. Although I taught 7 different grade levels, the school was so small that I only had about 100 different students. They were all so different, and it was as much an education for me as a first-year teacher. The 6th graders seemed so little compared to the know-it-all seniors, and the goofy 9th graders were always enlightening with their “Word of the Day”. It was a special group of 8th graders though who challenged my very existence and got me hooked forever on teaching.

The 7th and 8th graders made up the largest percentage of my students that year, and at the end of every other day I had my most challenging class with them – North Carolina History with 25 students, most of whom were male. At the center of this chaos was Jonny.

Throughout the course of the year I learned a lot about Jonny. He loved music, especially the game Guitar Hero, and his favorite song was “Sweet Child of Mine”. He played basketball, and he was definitely the class clown. Occasionally he would raise his hand and look like he needed to ask a serious question, but instead say something like, “Mrs. Russ, do you think my muscles are big?”

I also had the privilege of teaching Jonny’s older brother who was a senior that year. One day Jonny raised his hand because he saw his brother walking across campus.
“Look at him, he’s so cool. I want to be just like him when I grow up,” he said.

Another day towards the end of the year he handed me a folded up piece of paper that said the following:

“Will you marry me? We could live on the prairie together.”

Below it was an illustration of two people (supposedly me and Jonny) standing on the prairie holding hands. As a first-year teacher, the most important thing for me to do was to never, ever crack a smile, but Jonny made this nearly impossible.

At the end of the year I made the decision to take a position at a public high school much closer to my home, but I still keep in touch with some of those students. That October I received a phone call informing me that Jonny was in a car accident and had died in the hospital. He was 14 years old.

I have never experienced a loss like that, and I can never know what his family felt. I have been to funerals before, but never like Jonny’s. When someone so full of life passes away, people wait for hours to pay their respects. I thought about every day I spent with him in the classroom and how glad I was to be able to know him.

July 6th was his birthday, and each year I take time to think about Jonny, and remember him and those special students I spent my first year of teaching with.