A reunion with a once-troubled former student helps a teacher deal with her grief.
- Posted on Mar 15, 2012
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.
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.
It seemed that he was hanging on only for my sake. He knew I wasn’t ready to let him go. Would I ever be?
Lord, I said over and over, what will I do without Ernie?
After seven months, Ernie finally broke down. “Oh, Lou, my dear Lou, I don’t want to leave you,” he said one morning, voice trembling. He sobbed in my arms. I held him tight. Where was God now? How could he ever expect me to get through this?
That day I sat in the waiting room of the clinic, trying to read the book I’d brought. Yet all I could think about was a future without Ernie.
My gaze drifted up from my book. A slim young woman, holding a beautiful little boy by the hand, stood in front of me, beaming.
“Mrs. Zywicki?” she asked.
“Yes?” I said, startled.
“I was in your English class,” the woman said. “I won the short story contest. It’s me, Sarah.”
The hair was longer and brushed out, her skin was clear, her clothes new and clean, but those striking green eyes were the same that had challenged me so often. I lept to my feet and threw my arms around her. “Of course! Sarah! What happened to you?” I asked.
“I had a hard time for a while, but I got my GED and went to college. I’m a med tech here in the lab and just came in to get my paycheck.”
Joy overwhelmed me. I grabbed Sarah’s hands and jumped up and down.
“And this is my little boy, Mrs. Z.”
Her boy smiled shyly as Sarah studied me. “Are you okay? Why are you here?” she asked.
“My husband has cancer,” I said. “It’s bad. I’m waiting for him.”
Sarah and I sat down. Now she put her arms around me. “Oh, Mrs. Z. I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’ve always been so grateful to you...and Mr. Z.”
Ernie and me? “I don’t understand,” I said. Sarah had never even met Ernie.
“I may not have looked like it, but I was hanging on every word you taught us about good relationships. When you told us about Mr. Z, I knew I wanted a relationship like that some day, and I knew if I wanted to find a good man I had to get myself together. You taught me that I deserved better from life than what I was getting.”
I thought about all those times in class, talking about my relationship with Ernie as an example of how to treat someone with love, kindness and respect. I had gotten through to Sarah more than I ever thought.
We sat for a while holding hands and talking. She told me about her work, her little boy and her husband. “He’s a good man, Mrs. Z.,” she said.
We were interrupted by a nurse touching my shoulder. “Mrs. Zywicki, the doctor would like to see you now.”
Sarah and I hugged once more. “I’m so glad I ran into you today,” she said.
“Me too,” I said.
“I just needed to say thanks. You made a difference.”
Ernie was waiting for me in the doctor’s office. His lab tests had come back, and they weren’t good. Heading home, he was in a lot of pain. I told him about running into Sarah. “I always wondered what happened to her,” he said. He smiled when I mentioned what Sarah had said.
Four days later, Ernie passed away. The grief was paralyzing—it felt like I was plummeting down a deep, dark hole, with no bottom in sight.
In my darkest hours, I thought back to that moment in the waiting room. Seeing Sarah, her little boy. Learning how her life had turned around. Because of you and Mr. Z, she told me.
Because of God, I thought. He’d shown me the way to reach a hopeless child, without a future.
Lord, I prayed, I trust you to help me go on, to find a future without Ernie.
God couldn’t remove this pain. But he had put Sarah there at that very moment for a reason. To comfort and reassure me.
Last year, I married again, to a wonderful man who had also lost his spouse to cancer. I know that moving on is what Ernie would have wanted for me. It’s what God wanted for me too. And in a sense, it was Sarah who led the way.
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