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)