A Life Lesson

One of my former students passed away suddenly. Had I made a difference in his life?

By Karen Fuegi, Gerrardstown, West Virginia

As appeared in

I was enjoying my last few weeks of summer vacation before returning to my job as a high school teacher, when I received a terrible shock. While reading the local newspaper I discovered that a former student of mine, a 19-year-old named John Becker, had died of a serious illness.

I pictured him in my sign-language class—a bright youngster with wire-rim glasses and a baseball cap. His enthusiasm was surprising for a second-semester senior. He didn't seem to have any hearing-impaired friends or any other reason for learning to sign. He was just curious.

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I chided myself for knowing so little about him. I had never met his parents. I hadn't even known he had been sick. I prayed that somehow I had made a difference in his short life. I would have left it at that, but then I noticed the announcement for the viewing. I had to go.

At the funeral home I felt awkward. I didn't recognize anyone and had no idea what to say. I introduced myself to John's father, but it was clear by his reaction that he didn't know who I was. "I was John's teacher at Hedgesville High," I explained. "I taught him sign language."

"So you're the one!" he said. I looked at him, puzzled. "Toward the end of his life Johnny wasn't able to talk. The only way he could communicate was through sign language, which he had taught us. Thank you for coming tonight, Mrs. Fuegi. I was able to understand my son's last words because of you."