The story of this journey begins with loss. When my mother died in 2011, I grieved, but I also found myself thinking about her as a guiding force in my life as well as in the lives of so many others. Stella Barnett was the epitome of the first grade teacher. Of course, she challenged her students and helped them grow academically, but mom’s special gift was her unwavering love and acceptance of others.
Stella would have proudly told you that her faith was central to her approach to life. She devoted each day to reading the bible, and that quiet time of reflection and prayer was evident in her interaction with everyone.
I chose a different path when it came to faith. I found myself disillusioned with how divisive institutional religions can be. If I were to define myself, I would say I’m a humanist. I believe that we are all the same in our search for meaning in our lives, even though we use different languages to explain that cosmic quest for individual understanding.
For me, my mother’s spirit transcends any one religion. Rather it exemplifies the love that is central to most if not all religions.
While I bear my father’s name, I followed my mother’s footsteps by becoming a teacher. For 20 years, I taught at Sumter High, a massive school in small-town South Carolina. Immersed in the ever-changing world of students, I found a beautiful place of sharing in my classroom. I gained as much personally from my interaction with my students as I hope they did from our time together.
All teachers who have taught for a prolonged period have struggled at some point with the loss of a student. Jessica Ward, Michael Washington, Brittany Harglerode and Donovan Jones are just a few of the young people who passed through my classroom only to die much too early.
However, when Katie Carter unexpectedly died, I found myself struggling immensely to come to terms with her loss. Perhaps it was because my own daughter was graduating from school that year. Perhaps it was that Katie was a part of the student newspaper of which I was the advisor. Ultimately, I think there was something about Katie’s spirit that reminded me of my mother. While she could be a firecracker and ball of excitement, she genuinely loved those around her and worked to show them that love through her actions.
Just before she died in early May of 2015, Katie and I spoke while walking to set up an interview. I asked her what she wanted to do with her life, a question that I have been asking students perpetually over the years. She told me that she wanted to travel and see the world, that she wanted to work for National Geographic.
As she told me about her dream, I could see here in distant lands, camera and notepad in toe, discovering all that lay beyond the borders of her small town. It reminded me of my own dreams to travel when I was younger before I was married and raising a child and teaching full time.
This is a very personal journey. I am searching for the spirit of Stella that I believe to be as ubiquitous as the stars that stretch across the night sky. And I am also carrying the memory of Katie, a young woman who lived life fiercely and fully and dreamed with courage, in my heart.
Those two people were not famous, but they made a positive impact on almost everyone they knew.
That is the reason for my quest—to seek and to show that love and kindness are everywhere and that, if we simply set aside the divisions that blind us, we can see the all too human reflection in each pair of eyes that look into our own.
(I’m including an episode of The CQ TV here. The Cock’s Quill is the student newspaper of Sumter High School. The students who were a part of the staff and I chose to pay tribute to Katie at the end of this episode. I chose to include the entire episode because I was always exceedingly proud of the work my students produced.)