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Two books, and a West Virginian coal miner

No poems, no cute or witty stories with even less clever one liners.

Just an honest blog about where I am in my life.

You need to know that I love being a husband. A father. A friend. A teacher (how did this work out I’ll never know), and I love being realistic while holding on to optimistic ideals. As I told my students last year, my life (as far as I can tell) is complete. I tell a lot of stories when I’m in the classroom, when I speak at church, or when I am with friends. I’d like to think that, while it might be annoying to listen to my blase stories, that I feel like I’ve already lived the life of a 75 year old man. The thing is, I’m only 32. Everything I have ever wanted out of life, GOD has blessed me with. Its not like I’ve had only one or two goals but really, when I reflect on my life, I’ve been given everything I wanted. How many people have you met that can say that?

And while I feel like I’ll be around for a long time, it doesn’t hurt to look back over a lifetime and reflect and rejoice. Something I told my students last year was this: you don’t go through this life for YOU–its an “US” narrative. It is with that mentality I’ve tried to incorporate something I’ve learned from West Virginian coal miners. Morgan Spurlock (from Super Size Me fame) had a show on FX called 30 Days. Its essentially the same idea as Super Size Me, only that it placed people outside of their comfort zones and live in a completely foreign environment (foreign to them, not foreign like living in another country). One of Morgan’s shows had Morgan himself traveling back to his home state of West Virginia to live as a coal miner for 30 days. Aside from it being a fantastic show, something that took 20 seconds to say has stuck with me ever since.

The coal miners, early risers and often departing their houses with everyone asleep, write their wives and families a quick letter letting them know how much they mean to them. It doesn’t take much, but its important to them because of the obvious risks of being a coal miner. This idea is brilliant–or so I thought, because these guys work in a dangerous environment. It did not hit me until later that in a way, our lives are no different than the coal miners. Just because they are aware of increased dangers in their life doesn’t mean we can be blinded by the apparent safety in ours.

So, I decided that I would write a letter to Cyndi every Monday before I left for school, to let her know how much she meant to me. I also included Gavin in these letters. Heck, I even wrote letters to our beloved Rachel when she lived with us. These letters weren’t anything special–just simple expressions of thankfulness, sincerity, and blessing. I’ve since become quite lazy with the letters, trickling to every great once in a while. Until recently.

Cyndi and I stayed up Thursday night to watch Donald Trump’s The Apprentice. Other than the laughable soap opera Trump coordinates on his show, I was a bit distracted. I had the itch to write some letters. I had nine students in mind that I felt I needed to communicate some things to. So, one by one, I wrote personal letters to them, communicating simple “teacher” advice and encouragement. It wasn’t much, but I want my students to know that I care. Each letter was hand-written, and delivered to their first period teacher. By the end of the day, one of my students said it had made their day. I didn’t really know what to say, other than, “you’re welcome.” I don’t expect my students to return the favor, nor do I want them to become my penpals. I guess I want to show them under the gruff, House-like exterior, there is a real human being that cares for them.

Tonight, I finished reading a book that I already had read. Only, I hadn’t read the book, I’d seen the real thing. Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture became a source of inspiration for me last year as I conducted my own version of a last lecture with each of my English classes. I shared with them my life, from childhood, to teenage years, college, and finally, adulthood. I then spoke about and addressed each student in my class, telling them what I had learned about them, a quality that they had that stood out, and advice for the future. The conclusion was a slew of advice that I felt they needed to hear; it was essentially what I felt was the important things in life.

What came next humbled me. The final week of classes, exam week, I had a least one letter written to me every day from a student, thanking me for the school year, how they enjoyed me as a teacher, and grateful for what I had taught them in class (in all, I had six students write me personal letters). Considering that I had 130 students last year, six doesn’t sound like a lot. It would be foolish of me to say what they wrote, but each letter has been placed into a folder I call “Why I’m Here” (I created this my first year of teaching–if I was ever having a bad day, questioning why I had chosen this career, I’d dive into the folder and be instantly cheered up).

I bring this to light because I have just finished reading The Last Lecture ( another memorial Randy wrote to his wife and kids as a keepsake). It essentially included the main highlights from the lecture he gave at his school, plus a few bonus stories. What inspired tonight’s entry stems directly from that book.

Knowing full well that he was going to die soon, he wanted to communicate some truths, some advice, and some genuine love towards his family. If you’ve seen the lecture (and you SHOULD), you know how emotional it was. Reading the book was much more than I bargained for. Figuring that I knew how the story ends, I wasn’t expecting much. Instead, it ended up being only the second book that has generated a tearful reading experience for me. The tears were for many reasons. Randy pouring his heart out to his family, knowing that they would tarry on without him. Thinking about how his wife Jai would raise their kids on her own. How his kids wouldn’t have their dad around (all three kids were under the age of 6). The personal advice he gave to each of his kids. The final words his wife spoke to him at the end of the live lecture he gave.

Granted he was 47, had a beautiful family, a sweet career, and thousands of friends and adoring students surrounding him, but it never should have happened like this. Listening to his lecture, reading the book, you get the sense that he cared about US. Its the same sense I got when I read the other book that brought me to tears.

C.S. Lewis, after the death of his wife, kept a grieving journal that lasted for a few weeks. In it, he wrote of his struggles of loss, his enormous questions to GOD, and his fragile faith on life support. The book does have some closure by the end, but doesn’t resolve fully. If you read it, and your heart doesn’t break, you have no clue about US. C.S. Lewis, a man credited for bringing Christianity into the 20th Century, is vulnerable and weak after the death of his wife. All of his life’s accomplishments mean nothing in light of this loss. Its a man shaken to his core, much like Randy. If you haven’t already looked up this book and bought it (A Grief Observed), do yourself a favor and do so.

Which brings me back to the coal miner. Letter writing is not an overly complicated process. But it takes time, patience, and thoughtfulness. In the land of text messaging, social networking, and 1000s of can’t-do-without-them apps, hand-written letters are a lost art. Who takes time to write a letter anymore? Randy Pausch wrote one that has gone on to sell millions of copies, and his intention was just to communicate his joy for a life fulfilled and a call to action for his family. Lewis wrote of his weaknesses, his many larger than life questions to GOD, and his grief over losing his wife.

Maybe the coal miners have it write. John Wooden, longtime basketball icon of UCLA lore, wrote a letter every day to his wife, telling her how much she meant to him. He continued doing this after she died, leaving them on her side of the bed….for 15 years. In a world of social networking, the real network exists in letter writing. I need to return to form. My wife doesn’t necessarily need them from me, but she deserves it. So does my son. So do my students. After all, I love US. And without it, I’m not me.


About R. Ward

A husband, father, teacher, and struggling man of God.

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