On William Stafford, Katy Perry and a grave teenage illness

“The Way It Is”
By William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.




Last week I was all geared up to teach a journalism lesson when an email brought me and my mentor teacher to a screeching halt.

We learned that one of our students landed in intensive care over the weekend for an infection that sneaked up on him quietly and powerfully. Even in the last class we held before he went to the hospital, I was marveling at his positive attitude and academic performance.

My students put together a stack of get-well cards for their friend and I was fortunate to meet his family when I delivered the cards at the hospital. His mother told me that they had seen small improvements in his condition, but that they were still taking things minute by minute. These are scary times.

I think about this student often — every time another student asks how he’s doing, every time I come across one of his assignments, or sometimes when my mind drifts. We don’t know what will happen to him, and it is hard to accept that he might not have the future we imagined (I was convinced he would at least become a high school news editor, but likely much, much more). It’s even harder to tell his classmates that we’re not always hopeful.

During my 45-minute commute home from the high school, I was thinking about all this when Katy Perry’s “Firework” song came on the radio. Usually, I’m irritated by this song and its ubiquity on the radio waves. But on this day it reminded me of the high school assembly I’d seen where a student was playing this song on guitar and another was singing its chorus, his voice completely earnest. The school auditorium was filled with at least half of the student body, and the entire crowd erupted into song, supporting their friends on the stage. I know that if they thought their friend in the ICU could hear them, they would sing this song again for him.“Do you ever feel already buried deep, six feet under scream, but no one seems to hear a thing … Baby, you’re a firework. Come on show ’em what you’re worth…”

So much of a high school teacher’s work involves wrangling teenagers’ overpowering social tendencies. Developmentally, teens can’t help but see the world through a social lens — to them friendship is often more important than anything else. This can be irritating for a teacher who has an academic agenda to follow, or for a parent who is trying to instill values of discipline. But when I think about my students’ concern for their friend in the hospital, and when I think about hundreds of teenagers bursting into song to support a friend singing on stage, their compulsion to friendship strikes me as remarkable, even miraculous.

Perhaps this is why people reflect so often on their teenage years — for many people, they are a time when friendship is more important than anything else. And when friendships are rich, life is rich.

Already I get funny looks from people when I tell them that I’m choosing to teach high school as a career. I always tell them that I just like teenagers, but I haven’t figured out why. But now I can be clear on at least one of the reasons — I enjoy being in a work environment where friendship and community are a top priority to most of the people in the building. I appreciate a teenager’s compulsion toward friendship.


5 responses to “On William Stafford, Katy Perry and a grave teenage illness

  1. Amen, Caridad! Thanks for pointing out something so wonderful that I often overlook. Teenagers are a mystery to me. But now, not so mysterious as I once thought. Great peace, and my prayers are with your student.

  2. We found out Monday that the student who was hospitalized in this post died Sunday. He was a junior. A grieving high school is a hard place to be. Please pray for the family.

  3. Pingback: Going electronic with a student newspaper « Snapshot Storytelling

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