As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. – Isaiah 55:10-11
After more than 25 years as an educator, I have seen many strange and wonderful things. Like every other teacher I have experienced some incredible highs and some rather disappointing lows. Many of these major events have fallen from my memory, but I can honestly say that I will never forget the worst day of my teaching career: January 31, 2003.
Katie was a typical twelve year-old. She was good student, popular among her classmates, and a developing talent on the basketball court (when I could keep her thoughts away from cheerleading). As a friend of her parents, I enjoyed spending time with Katie and her family at different events away from school. There was one memorable trip to a minor league baseball game where I had to explain (in vain) that she need not report to her classmates the number of Lutheran lemonades I had enjoyed (I wasn’t driving). She babysat my young son a few times and did a great job. As her principal, basketball coach, and classroom teacher, I was given the opportunity to spend a lot of time with her that year. I remember calling her by her proper name: Kathleen Elizabeth, but I don’t remember why I started doing so – I just found it funny. In a profession where you aren’t able to pick favorites, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed the role I was playing in preparing her for a bright future.
This changed on the evening of January 17. Katie passed out while at a party with her family and was unresponsive. She was transported to a local hospital and later flown to the University of Michigan Medical Center. I was on a youth retreat in Northern Michigan when I received the word from our pastor. I remember sitting up all night waiting for news; praying for healing and peace. By morning she had stabilized but was still unresponsive. I spent the rest of the weekend trying to serve the youth on the trip, but my mind was on Katie, her family, and on our school. I felt helpless. For the next several days I found myself working with many other people to meet the needs of a community of believers who were hurting. Many decisions were made. Many prayers were lifted. Tears were shed and hugs were shared. But as our church and school community rallied together, Katie’s condition never improved. Finally, after two weeks of fighting, on January 31, 2003 we received the news that God had taken Katie to her heavenly home.
The days that followed were just as hectic. There were so many things that needed to be done, so many people coming together to offer comfort and help in any way possible. But in spite of everything I was doing to help, I continued to feel absolutely helpless. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t imagine the shock and pain my friends were experiencing. I felt as though everything I had done and everything that I was doing was meaningless.
The funeral was a difficult day, but one that allowed everyone who knew Katie to mourn our loss while celebrating her victory. In his sermon, Pastor Kurt Lambart made a simple yet enlightening observation. He said that all of the homework, all of the tests, all of the grades didn’t mean a thing. What proved itself to be most important for Katie was the faith she had in her Lord Jesus Christ. It had been placed in her by the Holy Spirit, taught to her by her parents and supported through the work of Christian pastors and teachers. Because of this work, Katie went to the arms of her Father knowing full well that the destination was Heaven. It was at that moment that it dawned on me. I had been looking at it all wrong. My efforts had nothing to do with academic preparations or athletic achievements that would be unrealized. I had helped contribute to something far greater.
On Wednesday, January 15, Kathleen Elizabeth and the rest of her schoolmates attended our weekly chapel where they heard a message which reminded them that Jesus Christ loved them enough to die on a cross so that they would someday go to Heaven. I just didn’t realize that my chapel service on that day would be Katie’s last formal worship opportunity…
and the single greatest accomplishment of my teaching career.