I had hoped that after he graduated we would become friends. For a while, I thought we were.
Jon was smart. Funny. Popular. Good looking. Athletic. The type of boy that I would have given anything to be friends with when I was in high school.
He said hello every morning, and told me to have a good night every day, and was one of those students who endear themselves to their teachers without trying too hard. I didn’t actually teach him (at any point) but he was one of those kids who was just always around, and always happy.
I didn’t get into teaching to befriend students. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with it, but because I didn’t see the point. When I was in high school, I had some amazing teachers, but never any that I would have considered a friend. That line, between teacher and student, was very clear to me; I was there to teach, and they were there to learn. I never expected how different my reality would be.
Throughout his three years in high school Jon and I kept crossing paths, starting with his locker being outside my classroom when he was in grade 10. From the beginning I could tell he was special; his smile lit up a room, and he was definitely one of the most polite 15 year old boys I had ever met.
Because I was young (only 25 when I first met him), I felt like Jon was the little brother I never had. I never stopped to examine the relationship I was building with him, because it somehow felt so natural. Our personalities meshed in a way that I never expected; though I spoke to him every day, I never felt like our interactions were any more or less than a student and a teacher talking about something they had in common.
By the time he was in grade 11, Jon was on the football team, which brought a measure of notoriety to his high school existence. Girls really started to talk about him, and he loved the attention. Though he was still not in any of my classes, our paths crossed daily; I would see him before (and often after) his English class, which was next door to mine. He would also drop in to my classroom to say hello and we would often talk about football, which was our only real connection for the first half of his high school years.
The ten-year age difference between us was, at times, very obvious. While I was worrying about things like car payments, and whether or not I should buy or rent a house, Jon was concerned with typical high school stuff: what party to go to on Friday, what to do on Saturday, how hard he would have to study in order to get a certain mark on an exam. But despite the difference, he maintained his brief daily visits to my classroom, exemplifying that politeness that I had noticed when we first met.
As I gained more experience in the classroom, I found myself more drawn to my students as people rather than numbers, or as bodies in desks. Even though I never expected to get hyper-involved in extra-curricular activities, I became the teacher sponsor for numerous clubs and activities. I also made a point to go to as many different games for as many different school teams as I could. Being seen at student activities in a school of over 2,000 automatically endeared me to a large number of students, and I tried very hard to build strong connections with students who I didn’t teach. I found, however, that no matter how many other students I was building connections with, Jon remained near the top of my list of favourites.
Looking back at it now, I can pinpoint the moment where my relationship with Jon moved past the purely professional and into something more personal. In November of his grade 12 year, the football team was playing for a championship. Jon was the star fullback, and he felt a lot of pressure to perform that weekend. Before they left for the game, which was out of town, Jon stopped by my classroom and told me that he was really glad that I was coming to watch the game. His exact words were “It means the world to me that you’re taking time out of your weekend to watch me play.”
Not the team. Just him.
That statement startled me. I was going to watch the whole team, wasn’t I? Didn’t I have 10 students in my classes that semester alone who were on the football team? Wasn’t this about school spirit and supporting the program, not just one player?
I convinced myself that he didn’t mean it, that he really meant to say “us” instead of “me”. But like so many other things, it was out in the open, and couldn’t be taken back. He wanted me there to support him, and I wanted to be there for the same reason.
I know now that I cheered harder for Jon than any other player on the field. I don’t think anyone else noticed, but it felt like I was doing something wrong by showing support for him above everyone else. In the end, it didn’t really matter, because we lost the game.
The tears of a teenage boy have the power to shatter a heart; there is no pretending contained in those tears. It was hard for all of us to watch the players come out of the locker room and break down in tears. Even though I was there mostly for Jon, it was easy to turn my compassion towards the other boys, who were so obviously hurting. I don’t think I’ve ever given so many hugs to students in such a short period of time.
Even though I felt that I was doing the right thing by consoling the other players, I kept an eye on the door, to see if Jon had exited yet. When he did, I felt my heart break a little for him; he was always so happy that seeing the tear-tracks on his cheeks overwhelmed me. He kept his head down and walked toward the bus, and in that moment I made a decision that would change my relationship with him forever: I chased after him.
When I got to him, I put my hand on his shoulder and turned him towards me. He collapsed into my arms, sobbing. As he let out all of his anguish, I found myself whispering words of encouragement to him; I held him in my arms for no less than five minutes, and the whole time I kept thinking that someone was going to look at us and assume that there was more to the hug than comfort. Even though there wasn’t, and even with those thoughts in my head, I couldn’t bring myself to let go.
In that moment, I felt more needed than I ever had. I felt the line between Jon and I disintegrate, and started to think about the possibility that we could at least be friends once he graduated. We didn’t have much in common other than football but we did have a real connection, one that I felt was stronger than what I shared with any other student.
The school year continued, and we slowly circled around each other. A nod here. A smile there. The occasional conversation in the hallway. Nothing really changed in the way I treated Jon, but I was more acutely aware of his presence. On more than one occasion, I caught myself trying to find him in the cafeteria, or see him in the hallway as he walked by. I convinced myself that I was just looking out for him, just making sure that he was okay.
By the time the school year ended, Jon and I had forged something that resembled a friendship. Instead of him just dropping in to my classroom to say hello, we would talk about upcoming plans for the summer, or his plans for the following year in university.
When Jon found out that I was not returning to the same school the following year, he hugged me and told me it was okay if I had to cry; I took advantage of his kindness and nearly sobbed on his shoulder. It was in that moment I realized that, while Jon and I had a guarded personal relationship of some sort, I wanted it to be more.
It wasn’t, and will never be.
Though we’ve stayed in touch, Jon went off to college to play football and our relationship changed again. I saw him once, while he was away. It was nice, but the careful bond we had forged the year prior was gone; it was something that we’d never get back.
In the end I had to let the idea of Jon go. I know that I can’t catch him when he falls anymore. Though I’ve imagined that he’ll somehow need me the way he did that cold November night, he doesn’t. He might find his way back into my life someday; if that happens, I will welcome him with open arms and an open heart.
Until then, though, I will keep my distance. No matter how much I don’t want to.