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Far Too Young to Leave

Andrew (left) and my chili cook-off team. Spring, 2001.

Andrew (left) and my chili cook-off team. Spring, 2001.

I sit here because I cannot sleep. I sit here with eyes full of tears and a mind full of memories because I received a text message from Brianna, an ex-student and ex-player, whom I remain in close contact with, that Andrew, another ex-student and ex-player, had lost his fight with cancer.  He was only 24 years old.

I am not sure what I hope to gain from writing this post.  Is it for me (as I know writing has helped me with a previous loss)? Is it for Andrew?  Maybe it is a tribute to a student and young man that meant a lot to me? Maybe it is because I want his family to know the impact that he had on my life. Maybe it is because I want others to know how students can touch the lives of their teachers and coaches……

I met Andrew in my first teaching job in September 2000 at Brookswood Secondary School in Langley, BC.  I taught him Science 8.  Right away, Andrew and his buddies knew I was a rookie teacher so the razzing began fairly early and we immediately developed a comical, jock-type relationship.  That year, I also coached the grade 8 boys basketball team and helped coach the grade 8 boys rugby team.  Andrew was not the fastest, biggest, or strongest player in either sport but he was one of those great “coachable” kids that worked hard at every practice and was never one to complain about anything.  During the basketball season, I met his parents, Randy and Dori; they were the type of parents you wanted for your players: dedicated and supportive.  In the spring, I had the honour of coaching rugby with Randy (alright, I was more of a follow directions kind of coach as my rugby experience consisted of watching my roommate at university play for the UVIC rugby team) and, through the hours spent coaching, getting to know the family that much better.  I was always blown away how a kid that had a body like me when I was 13 (“a pirate’s dream” – sunken chest, surrounded by bones) could be so passionate about a sport like rugby; however, after you got to know the family, you knew that rugby was life and that Andrew, no matter his size, knew his passion.

I remember the school putting on a chili cook-off at lunch one day.  I don’t remember who won but I do remember all the laughs that Andrew and his buddies had as I invited them to “cook” with me for that hour.  Dressed in lab coats, we put a whole lot of ingredients of which none of us knew what they were.  In the end, it was edible and we shared a moment I will always remember.

Andrew’s class was the first class that I saw graduate through high school.  I was lucky enough to remain at Brookswood for all of Andrew’s high school years so when I saw his class graduate, it was something special as I could look back to when I taught and coached these “kids” in grade 8.  I had a special bond with this group of students; I only taught most of them once but I followed them and helped coach them right through their high school years.  From grades 8-12, I could always count on some digs from Andrew and his buddy Cody as I walked through the cafeteria at lunch (of course, Andrew mentored his younger brother Patrick on how to razz Mr. Wejr… and Patrick succeeded – big time).

After Andrew graduated in 2005, I ran into him now and then and we always shared that same relationship – a humorous one yet one that recognized we had a mutual respect for each other.

In March, 2010, I received a Facebook message from his mom that said:

I don’t know if you heard but Andrew was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma in December.  He has his last chemo (no. 6) on the 30 of March. It has been a very long trip..a very scary trip at times.. he is doing much better. I didn’t realize how tough that kid is. Pet scan on April 20th and hopefully the cancer is gone…check him out on Facebook he would like to hear from you.

I was absolutely shocked.  I immediately wrote Andrew a Facebook message:

Cheering you on like old times

Hey bud. Got a message from your mom that you were going through treatments. Pretty shocking that a healthy, young guy like yourself would be faced with such a battle. I have no doubt in my mind that you will defeat this like you have always done. I remember when I picked you for the grade 8 basketball team in my first year at Brookswood. I never picked you because you were the tallest or the fastest… but you played with heart. I imagine that is what you are doing now.. just playing a much more serious game. Keep playing with the heart that made you a successful rugby player, student, and person.

The group of you guys has special memories for me as you were the first class I taught and coached (science 8, basketball, and rugby – although I was a bit of a waterboy for rugby). Chili cookoffs, pops with your mom and dad after a wet rugby game, and ripping into you and Rockson bring back some great memories. I miss Brookswood because I think of all the fun I had there but I know if I went back there it would not be the same. I do miss the joking around that I could do with you guys – I am at an elementary school now and you can’t quite have the same conversations with 8 year-olds :-).

Anyways, keep me updated on your treatments – I imagine with your heart, strength and the support that you have from all your friends and family, you will look back and see this as something that changed your life and brought so many people that much closer to you.

I cannot wait to see the scoreboard:
Vaydo 1
Lymphoma 0

Let me know if you or your family ever need anything!

Andrew never responded but I know he read it.  He was not a guy that really shared how he felt and that was not our relationship.  Before writing this, I sat there and stared into our back yard and wondered if Andrew knew how I felt about him.  I forgot about this FB message and I am so thankful that Dori reached out to me so I was able to send him that message.  Far too often in life, those we care about leave us without ever knowing how we feel.
This past Christmas, I was walking through the mall and ran into Andrew.  I hesitated on asking how things were going (as his mom had kept me up to date on radiation and stem-cell therapy treatments) but I did; he responded with shrug of his shoulders, a big grin, and said something like “still fighting… one day at a time”.  I had my newborn daughters with me – they were able to “meet” Andrew and see that there is always reason to smile.  That was the last time I would ever see Andrew.  He left with a handshake and a smile.

I am still not sure why I have written this.  I am not sure if anybody who knows Andrew will actually read this.

If I have written this for me, I do know that I have shed tears and cracked smiles as I reflect on the impact one student and his family can have on a teacher/coach.  I do know that Andrew knew how important he was to me.

If I have written this for others, I hope that people realize the power of teacher relationships with students and the impact that these can have on our lives.  Coaching, for me, resulted in the formation of close, personal relationships with many students and wonderful memories that nobody can ever take away.  I firmly believe that it is primarily due to coaching, and the resulting hours spent together, that I was able to form a close bond with Andrew and his family.  Thinking back on the days with Andrew and his family and friends, It is not the curriculum that I remember; it is the chili cook-off, the post-game chats, the humorous comments in the hallways, and the bus rides to games.  As teachers, we need to let people in and show that we are human; once we do this, we will see the huge impacts that students and their families can have on our lives.

If I have written this for his family and Team Andrew, there are no words strong enough to say or write but I do hope that they realize that their son/brother taught us all to look at things from a view of optimism and that can’t is a word to be avoided.  From Andrew’s Facebook Page (“About Andrew”)

“I believe that the mind holds the key to life beyond a physical meaning. A strong mind makes a strong person and with that strength, man can overcome any challenge or obstacle in his or her path. The belief in positive thoughts and positive re-enforcement will make the world a better place for everyone. The mind is the gateway to the soul, i believe, and when you gain control of the mind the soul stays happy. Positive thoughts to everyone!” —
If I have written this for Andrew, I, like many of those whose lives you touched, will do my best to carry on your positive outlook on life.  The pain is over, you can rest now.  Still, it is not fair – you were far too young to leave. I will remember you forever.
Andrew V. (1987-2011)

Andrew V. (1987-2011)

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls. Currently working as the Principal of James Hill Elementary School (K-5) in Langley, BC, Canada. Passionate about strengths-based education and leadership, assessment, and human motivation.

42 Comments

  1. Chris, moving post. I think when we put ourselves out there, we develop deeper relationships and those relationships are what sustain us. I am sure that the loss is hard, but reading your post, I know that you are thankful for the time you had with Andrew and the way he impacted your life as a person first and educator second. Take care.

    • Thanks Darcy… been a whirlwind of emotions as I have had the chance to reflect not only on ANdrew’s time but also my time as a teacher.

  2. I think it is one of the best and hardest parts about this career that we choose that we develop these relationships, and every year we say goodbye, and a like John Donne says, a little bit of our island is washed away. It is even harder when those who are younger than us are met with illness or tragedy. This was a truly great post and I hope that Andrew`s family and friends get to read it. And I hope it gives you some solace to have had the relationship and to have had the chance to reflect on what a great kid he was and how lucky we are to be in the career that we are.

    • Thanks Brenda… I think you summed it up perfectly with the opportunity to reflect. I have connected with a number of Andrew’s family and classmates over the past few weeks… we have shared some very special memories.

    • Thanks Julie – have had a chance to reflect and share some great memories of this fine young man along with his family and friends.

  3. Chris, what a beautiful tribute to Andrew. He was very lucky to have you as a teacher/coach/friend. I hope you are doing okay…please know you are in my thoughts.

    • Thanks Lisa – we never realize how special our students are until we watch them go.

  4. Once again, you were able to bring me to tears reading about your relationships with people in your life… and the impact of losing them. I know his family would be very proud of your words about your days and times shared with Andrew. I’m sure they were even able to smile remembering the stories you shared about having him in your life at Brookswood. This is a wonderful tribute to Andrew and such a huge loss for his friends and family.

    • Thanks Mom – I learned the importance of relationships through teachers like you. Andrew had such a tight bond with his family – I was glad I was able to be a small part.

  5. No matter the audience…thanks for writing this Chris. For those of us that did not have the pleasure of knowing Andrew, your post has given greater insight into who you are as a person, teacher and leader. Thank you for sharing Andrew’s story.

  6. Your writing this helps all, Chris. We need to share loss and sadness. The loss of youngsters is so painful, especially ones we have had special connections and bonds with. You have done so much in his memory already. Take care.

  7. Thank you so much for the kind words. It’s lovely to know that others saw the same qualities in Andrew that his family did. I know that he held you in high regard as a teacher, coach and friend.

    Sincerely,
    From one of Andrew’s big sisters.

    • Thank you so much for commenting at such a difficult time, Katy. From speaking with your mom, I know how strong your family has been through this entire struggle. It was an honour to have Andrew in my life for that short time. See you on the 13th.

  8. Wow, very moving…it moved me to tears. Sorry to hear of Andrew’s sad news…reading this shows the legacy he leaves behind. Well written.

  9. I was also crying when I read this. A beautiful post and I am sure that you made just as important an impact on Andrew’s life as he did on yours. Heartwarming, I wish that all students could know how much they impact our very beings. Toutes mes condoleances.

    • You bring up a good point… we need to ensure that students know how important they are to us… through modelling how much we care. Thanks so much for adding to this dialogue and causing me to reflect further.

  10. Just I would like to say thank you for share it! Also it moved me to tears, but I’m happy to find everyday great teachers as you. ¡Ánimo y un abrazo desde Barcelona a ti y a su familia!

    • Thank you Javi – blogging and SM has allowed me to connect with passionate educators from around the world. Sometimes we need to reveal how powerful our student relationships can be. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  11. Finally found the mindset to read this. Interestingly, found the mindset on my mom’s birthday (today). She died in 2003, from cancer. Thanks for sharing this beautifully emotional writing. Not much in life that makes me feel more human more than grief…

    • I am so sorry to hear of your loss… this stuff just is not fair. The loss of Andrew truly did make teaching feel more human. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  12. I have just lost someone very close to me. It is painful, but I am glad that, the day before she died (2 weeks ago today) I told her what I had wanted to say for a long time: “Knowing you has made me a better person.” I think that is what you are trying to say here. My friend’s answer? “Mutual.” A gift I will take to my grave. Thank you for sharing your feelings so openly. It helped me.

    • Wow… what a great statement. I will leave it at that “knowing you has made me a better person”. Beautiful.

  13. Thank you so much for the kind words about my brother. He was an exceptional person who will be missed forever, but always remembered. I never met you as I am quite a few years older than Andrew, but I heard all about you. Andrew always has good things to say. Thank you again.

    Leah

    • Leah… I have learned so much about family by observing your family over the past many years. Your parents seemed to have such a friendship with you and I am so thankful I have been able to be a (very tiny) part of your time with Andrew. I look forward to meeting you on the 13th and please let me know if there is anything I can do.

  14. Chris thank you for the beautiful words. Andrew was everything you said and more. There was a side to him that not everyone knew. He was a loyal and devoted son, brother and uncle. He was a caregiver, who loved his nephew and niece and was wonderful with all children. When Andrew started school at Brookswood he had to take public transit and leave the house at 7 am. I would stand out on the deck and try to see him getting on the bus so that I knew he was safe. He was so small and I worried about him going off so far from home. I couldn’t drive him because I had daycare and had to be there for the children being dropped off. He wasn’t fazed and happily went off to go to a school where he could be with his long time friend Cody and get to play rugby.

    Andrew loved to play rugby and would get frustrated that he didn’t have the size. What he lacked in size he made up for in know how. Andrew new that game. He could see the field and now what should be happening. He had hoped to coach in the future.

    Andrew’s battle got pretty rough at the end and he had moments where he would break down and say why me. Then he would bring himself back up and start fighting again. I got to know my son very well in the last 7 months and for days at a time I never left his side unless he had someone there to support him. He was a beautiful shining star and his brightness is still glowing. When things would get tough we would just say well..we just gotta do what we gotta do..

    • Dori – I am not sure what to say. It was great to spend some time with you the other day to reflect on the good times with Andrew and his boys. I was inspired by the friendship you had with him along with your other “children”. I do hope that Andrew knew how much he inspired others during his short time with us. Also, I hope YOU realize how much your family has impacted others around you.

      Thank you for always including me in your circle of family and friends. I look forward to seeing you and celebrating Andrew on the 13th.

  15. I am a friend of the Vaydo family and Andrew’s sister Leah posted a link to your post on FB. Thank you so much for your kind words and for sharing your memories about Andrew. You said so many things about that young man that we are all thinking – thank you again for sharing.

    • I hope to meet you next Saturday, Jaclyn… thank you so much for your comment and please know that I am thinking about all of Andrew’s friends and family.

  16. This is a great post. Having the chance to share your story of a remarkable kid is the best. Not only do you remember the stories, but many can read your view of what they saw.

    I didn’t know Andrew, but I can tell how much of an impact he had on you. I’m pretty sure you had a huge impact on him as well.

    I really like what you said when you pointed out what students remember. We as teachers do need to open ourselves up to srudents and share in more than just “school”. Having great mentors like you is what every parent dreams of when they send their children off to school each day.

    Hold your head high, remember the great memlries of Andrew and all students that pass through your door. Thanks for a great post, Chris.

    • Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts Anthony. I have shared memories with friends and family of Andrew and these do nothing but bring a smile to my face. It is not about the Kinetic Molecular Theory (which I taught Andrew and I am SURE he remembered ;-)) but about the journey that relies on the relationship.

      Thanks again.

  17. Chris, I stumbled across your blog earlier today – I do not know you, you do not know me. What an impact – obviously your students were people, real people, and not just ‘another seat in the desk’. I believe the impact people have on each other, and how teachers teach more than subjects. Connections and assets are built. Andrew was very fortunate to have you as an influential adult in his schooling and during his life. Sharing Andrew’s story is hopeful and motivating – all teachers need to hear Andrew’s story. We need to build connections and realtionships – authentic, caring realtionships. Learning and growing transcends straight rows and text books. Being a parent of a teenage daughter, I would only hope that a teacher one day can make this connection with her, have this impact, rather than her being ‘another seat in the desk’. Andrew was a fortunate young man to have a teacher who taught the person, not just the text. Many blessings to his family.

    • Thank you so much Andrea. Relationships are so key… as a result of this experience, it further made me realize the importance of time spent with students. I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Andrew and his family through school and extra-curricular. The relationships formed through things like coaching can never be replaced. Thanks again for sharing your personal thoughts.

  18. May you find peace and strength knowing you have touched many with this post.
    Peg

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and share your comment. Much appreciated Peg.

      Chris

  19. You said it perfectly and anyone that came in contact with andrew would agree with what u have said.. And it is very sad someone soo kind and special can just be tooken away from soo many people.. And I’m sure andrew has touched a lot of people with all he had.. Even if it was just one class he had or if it was his bestfriend… Andrew will be missed dearly…

    • Well said, Dayna. Thanks for commenting and sharing your feelings about our friend, Andrew. Hope to see you tomorrow at the rugby club celebration for Andrew.

  20. mr. wejr,

    i stumbled upon your blog from a fellow old brookswood secondary student and am blown away.

    thank you for caring. thank you for caring about andrew, about all of your students, their families. and thank you for having the guts to show the world how much you care.

    what you have done and continue to do is truly so important.

    ashley schulz (nee carlson)

    • Wow… it means so much to have a former student comment here. Your group sure meant/means a lot to me… that is more to do with the group you were/are than me. Thanks again for the comment.

  21. Thank you for your depth, your honesty and your vulnerability. It’s what draws me to your blog.

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