Guided by Heaven's Hand to Make a Difference
A reunion with a once-troubled former student helps a teacher deal with her grief.
I published an article in Guideposts magazine a little over six years ago: Sarah’s Story, about a troubled eleventh grader in the English class I taught at a vocational high school in Duluth, Minnesota. Sarah was one of the angriest students I had ever taught. But I knew that her anger was simply a defense she’d built up against her deeper feelings of fear and hurt.
Sarah had grown up in an abusive home and had then lived on the streets before entering foster care. Even then she remained disruptive and confrontational—with her fellow students and especially with me, whom she saw as just another authority figure who couldn’t be trusted. She seemed to have no interest in her future.
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I was at a loss. I was proud of my teaching, but I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to reach Sarah. Lord, I’d prayed, help me find the key to Sarah’s heart.
Then one day I stumbled onto something that I hoped would grab her attention, a Northern Minnesota writing contest. “You gonna learn me how to win that contest?” she asked me, curiosity instead of challenge in her green eyes for once. It was one of the few full sentences I had heard her speak, and perhaps the most civil.
With a lot of hard work and heartbreaking honesty, Sarah produced a story. Incredibly, it won third place. I was so proud of her that I wrote my own story about Sarah and sent it to Guideposts magazine.
They published my article. But I never dreamed that it would get such a huge response. One e-mail even came all the way from China! People shared their own difficulties, and their thankfulness for the reminder that God answers prayer and is with us even in the depths of our struggles.
But overwhelmingly, they all asked the same question: Whatever happened to Sarah? It was a question I often asked myself.
Sarah was beaming that day she accepted her prize and read her story at the awards luncheon. She looked like a new person: showered, dressed appropriately, polite and gracious as she basked in the spotlight.
But young people who have a history of pain and failure, abuse and neglect don’t simply get over it. The damage is just too severe. Sarah eventually dropped out of high school.
Last I heard, she had gone back to life on the streets. I couldn’t find her, and it broke my heart.
“I know that God is still looking out for her,” I wrote in response to all of the kind messages about Sarah. “He is there for us in our darkest hours. The one thing we all can do for her is pray.”
I believed the words I wrote because my own life was proof. My first marriage had ended in divorce, and I fully expected to be alone for the rest of my life, if that’s how it worked out. Instead, I met Ernie, a handsome construction supervisor helping to remodel a school where I was teaching.
Ernie and I had 12 happy years of marriage. I often used him as an example in class when discussing healthy relationships, including the classes Sarah attended. I had a whole section on how couples relate and communicate, and he was my model husband.
Then, on his seventy-first birthday, Ernie was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. He wasn’t a smoker; he always exercised. We were devastated. “The disease is very advanced,” the doctor informed us. “We’ll begin chemotherapy right away, but it may be too late for it to do much good.”
I took off most of the second semester of school to stay by Ernie’s side. Several times a week, I drove him 45 minutes to the chemotherapy clinic in Duluth, for treatments that lasted eight to 10 hours. Ernie bore it all so stoically, so bravely, but he was losing the fight. I saw it in his face, increasingly pale and gaunt.