Wednesday, March 27, 2013


When I started teaching, I was just 5 years older than my oldest students. Despite student teaching and subbing, I knew little about teenagers aside from my own stint as one in the very school where I now taught. How wise I thought I sounded when I’d stand up at back to school night speaking to the tired 40-somethings who sat yawning in the one-armed desks in front of me.  I had a know -it -all attitude and truly thought my students’ lives revolved around 10th grade English class.

And then there were the boys.  They were loud. One disruptive boy could send the whole lesson plan down the toilet. Their papers were crumpled, and they forgot to turn things in. “Miss Whiston, everyone knows you don’t like boys very much,” a particularly gutsy student told me one day. What? That was ridiculous!  

Sure, I kept a professional distance from the boys because I was a young teacher and I didn’t want any tinge of impropriety on my career. Word on the street was that at least two of my young colleagues were teetering on the edge of that very precipice at the time, and I wanted no part of it. It was just easier to get close to the girls. I understood them. They liked me. They kept track of what outfits I wore, noting to me in a most “helpful” way when I got to my first clothing repeat. I could read their handwriting. They cared about their grades.  Pulling late night sessions in the windowless yearbook office was easier with girls around, too.

Oh. Crap. I guess the accusation was correct.

But as I got my teaching legs and that 5 year age difference crept up to more than a decade, I became much more at ease around the boys. I loved how the brightest, most awkward ones would stand by my desk, jostling each other to be the first to tell me something. Maybe they’d encountered one of our vocabulary words out in the world. Maybe they had a pun to share. Girls were not yet digging these boys, so they weren’t self- conscious about being brown-nosers hanging around the teacher’s desk. By the time I stopped teaching, the afternoon before Jack was born, I was as comfortable with the boys as the girls.

Jack. At our 20 week sonogram, the technician announced, “It’s a boy.” What?! I got teary, and not in a good way. I didn’t know what I would do with a boy. My fondest childhood memories were of special moments with my mother, and I hoped having a girl would mean we could somehow put balm on the painful scar of losing my mom too young.

What if this baby… this boy…and I couldn’t share those experiences together? I like words. I don’t like running around. I’m totally cool with potty humor, but I wish someone would just go ahead and paint the football neon orange so I could at least pretend to follow the plays. Besides, isn’t it much more fun to talk about the outfits and the cheerleaders' moves and the band than actually watch a game? And the lists of baby names scrawled in my high school notebooks were all for girls. For some crazy reason, I’d convinced myself that only another vagina was going to come out of this vagina.

My sister, 9 months ahead of me on the parenting journey said, “At first you’ll pray to God for A child. After he’s born, you’ll realize you had prayed to God for THIS child.”

And she was right.

Jack and I were made for each other. He wasn’t rough and tumble. He was charming and funny. He loved words and word play. He was loyal and smart. Our bond strengthened during long days together while Tim worked full-time and went to law school, but it somehow felt as if it had been there since the beginning of time. I read to him incessantly. Our house was small. Our world was small. No cable tv, no smart phones, no blogs. Sometimes it felt too small, but most days it felt just right. Just mom and Jack, seeing what the day held.

As I grew as a mother, and grew to love Jack even more as I got to know him, I thought back to my teaching days. I knew I would be a better teacher now that I was a mom. That doesn’t mean all teachers have to be moms, but I think parenting gave me important perspective on  homework and balance and boys that I sorely lacked before. I sent up a silent apology to all of those frazzled moms of boys for assigning their sons  Pride and Prejudice over summer vacation and so many touchy-feely journal entries.

I thought of the quirky boys who encircled my desk. The ones who would come up with weird facts and present them to me as a gift. Who, despite the surging of hormones and the burgeoning  facial hair, still seemed like enthusiastic little boys inside.  They reminded me of Jack, and I loved them.

I hoped that when Jack grew into himself and took his own charming quirkiness off to high school, he would encounter teachers who got a kick out of him the way I did. Teachers who would see his brains and his charm and his bursts of enthusiasm as a plus not just  a hindrance to the day’s schedule.

In 6th grade, I got a glimpse of this possibility. His science class was studying rocks. On his science teacher’s  birthday, he found an ugly hunk of rock on the playground. After recess, he presented it to her with flourish, saying, “Here. I found you a Common Rock for your birthday.”

And his teacher, seeing that this common rock came from an uncommon boy, took it home and put it on her mantel.



Loukia said...

He was an amazing boy, Anna. xoxo

OSMA said...

As a former teacher, fellow mom, online friend, and person who never got to meet your uncommon boy, I am bawling at the image of that rock on her mantle.

We love you.

We love Jack.


Arnebya said...

Some things are not well hidden. Jack's uncommonness is definitely one of those things.

Anonymous said...

I remember feeling a twinge of disappointment when the ultrasound revealed that I wasn't having a 2nd girl. Now I know how lucky I am to know the bond of a mother and son. I am so sorry that your Jack is no longer on this earth with you. Much love to your family.

Jill said...

That was beautiful.

New Mom said...

I was a young teacher of teenagers and I totally get what you're saying about the boys. I too feel so horrible about what I must have done to their poor parents! And I still CRINGE at the memory of my back-to-school-night lectures. I am also blessed to be mom to a boy now, and even though he's only two, I already know I would do so many things differently as a teacher. I love your post today and it made me fall even more in love with Jack.

Kim P. said...

As I was loading groceries into my minivan today I looked at my Jack magnet I have on the back of it and smiled. I love all of your touching stories about this amazing boy! Just one more to smile sweet he gave his teacher a rock. Love from Purcellville.

Kim P. said...

As I was loading groceries into my minivan today I looked at my Jack magnet I have on the back of it and smiled. I love all of your touching stories about this amazing boy! Just one more to smile sweet he gave his teacher a rock. Love from Purcellville.

lindsay said...

Just beautifully done. The image of you and Jack spending your days together is such a sweet one.

Christy said...

Such a beautifully written post. xo

Debby@Just Breathe said...

It is pretty amazing how stories can unfold with time and the plans that God knew all along for giving you a very special boy named "Jack"

Sybil@PeaceitallTogether said...

Even though I wish footballs were neon too, I always wanted a boy. It just felt like that's how it should be. I got two girls first, then my boy. He is not the boy that I expected, but he is perfect for me. Jack was perfect for you, too!

Gigi said...

I remember being pregnant and praying for a boy - only because I knew I couldn't deal with a girl (particularly after remembering my teenage years). Despite the fact that I'd once been a girl, I knew I needed to be a boy mom. And God answered my prayers.

Boys are a different - in oh so many ways. But those boys? They reach into your hearts and make you look at life in a way you never saw before.

mollysmith222 said...
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Anne Marie said...

I only know Jack through your blog and I miss him so. Hugs.

semplicemente ... j said...

So beautifully written like all your posts. You make me laugh and cry all within the same sentence. I admire your strength and feel the love for your son in every single word. My thoughts are with you.

Kathy at kissing the frog said...

Anna, I rememeber when my first ultrasound revealed I was having TWO boys - all I could think of was noise and dirt and bugs. The dirt and noise part was true, but my boys also are all sensitive and love books. My Joey loved school and he adored his teachers. That is one of the things I will always think about - how he'd be doing in school and if he would keep that wonder and respect for learning. I really really loved this post, my friend. xo

Heather L. Kopp said...

Anna, you are so good at describing Jack. I wish I could have met him in a different way--alive and well. But I am so blessed to know him this way too, as your uncommon, amazing son who is still impacting the world. Love you, Heather

Laura Perry said...
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Laura Perry said...

This is so beautifully written.

I was only 21 when I had my son, Sam. I was completely overwhelmed at the idea of having a child in the first place. I had grown up with a singe mother and two sisters, so when the midwife told me it was a boy she may as well have said, "Congratulations- it's a giraffe!" But then they handed him to me, I looked down and thought, "Hey, wait. I know you." My soul recognized his.

I teach in a special ed classroom, and it is invariably the kid who I think I will never be able to cope with, or with whom I'll never be able to connect, that invariably burrow his or her way deepest into my heart.

Thank you for sharing Jack with us in this way. I will be picturing that rock on the mantle, and think about the beautiful giver of that gift all day. xo

Unknown said...

I hear my niece (a new 10th grade English teacher) in your early description of yourself. I know she'll grow to be a wonderful teacher. She holds so much hope and compassion in her heart.

I'm happy for your many memories of Jack. Thank you for sharing them with us.

Linda K said...

Anna, sweet tender words about your precious Jack that resonate with me about my precious Kirk. I so admire your strength and courage to just keep on keeping on, as they say. My Kirk is alive but battles against a disease that wants to consume all of him in front of my eyes. He is 21 and suffers from an eating disorder. He's fought this since age 15. It's been an emotional roller coaster to say the least. And we continue to ride it. I have two daughter who are both sweet, precious and dear to me. But my son touches a part of my heart that is reserved for a mother's son. I know you know.

Rach said...


I don't know what it was about this post, but this, of all your posts, was the one that brought me to tears. Maybe being a teacher this resonated with me. Maybe it's because I adored my fifth grade boys in all their charming "differentness" so much. Maybe it was knowing that his teacher appreciated his quirkiness and funny sense of humor in that Common Rock, I don't know. What I do know is your boy was truly UNcommon and I feel so blessed in having come to know him through your blog. Thank you so much for sharing him with us.


Anonymous said...

Who knew there are so many teachers reading this? Thanks to all for your work!

@Molly, you sure have been through a lot, and I'm so sorry.

@Linda, I'm so sorry to hear about your son's health struggles.

Happy Easter in advance to Anna's family, and everyone else who celebrates that, and Happy Passover.

A lot of people have mentioned that the timing of spring holidays hits uncomfortably close to a loss, or that it's their first holiday after a loss, so I hope those folks will have at least some tiny moments of comfort.

Kyra B said...

As Glennon would say, this story truly is Brutiful.

My heart hurts for yours. Thank you for sharing your memories. Clearly Jack was exceptional in so many ways. Know that you are being thought of in hearts and prayers all over the world.

Warmly, KB

Anonymous said...

A little vocabulary lesson for you:

I believe you meant "torturous" not "tortuous" in your recent Momastery post.

Just a little tip for someone who speaks about teaching English in the past.

Anonymous said...

I hope that this will continue to be a safe place for those who need it, whether to share their burdens or to celebrate little victories.

I hope that people will continue to feel that anything they have to say will be heard with respect, especially in holy week.

Michelle DeRusha said...

I love, love, love this story. Well, I should say stories. But especially the one about the common rock.

{I cried when I first found out I was having a boy, too}

Sara said...

Anna, I wish I had your gift for words to tell you how much you move me with every sentence.

I have 3 boys under the age of 6. I have 4 sisters. The world of boys was so foreign to me, before I had my sons. A totally uncharted territory.

I've never read words that better capture the beauty and love of the 'boyness', that you experienced as you raised Jack.

You were so lucky to have each other. He clearly taught you things you already knew. I wish from deep down in my soul that he were still with you, so that you could both continue to teach each other the same way. I know you'll be able to do so, somewhere Out There.

Much Love to you and your Beautiful Family

dwerrlein said...

a common rock from an uncommon boy. i love it--and as a teacher myself, i would just love to get that rock. Jack truly comes to life through your words. :)

kara said... gotta love 'em!

Unknown said...

Your sister's remark made me choke up with tears.

Denise said...

Fabulous post.

Kate Coveny Hood said...

I had a similar 20 week sonogram experience with Oliver. I ALWAYS thought I'd have a girl first. Which is funny since as a babysitter, I always loved those quirky little boys. Miss you!

Jenn said...

I love reading your stories of Jack, Anna. I feel like I am getting to know him through your memories which you so selflessly share. I wish I would have had a chance to meet him in person, but I feel honored to have an opportunity to get to know such an extraordinary young man via your writing.

Geri said...

"Just mom and Jack, seeing what the day held."
That line brought me back 30 years. I was hoping for a girl too, when I was pregnant with Nick. And of course once he was born, I was completely in love with him. For almost four years, until our girl was born, it was just mom and Nick, seeing what the day held. Precious, precious times.
A beautiful post Anna, a beautiful boy.

The Hebbs said...

Thank you for always commenting on my blog...I had looked up your blog a couple of times but never knew you lost a child until I was so consumed in my own grief. your jack is such a handsome, sweet boy.
Im so sorry you had to experience the horrible feelings of anxiety, and panic and complete despair the day your son drowned. such trauma to your mom-heart.
We are strong because we have to be. I send you strength today, to make it through one more day.
Love to you my grieving mother friend-stupid club we are in

The Hebbs said...

oh that face of Jack is so so handsome and precious.

I forgot.
Can you share my blog or warn about washing machines for me? Please?

I feel connected to you as a friend and mother because so few can really empathize with me on the feelings I have from the way Ollie died...drowning. yucky. I often wonder what it was like...makes me sick.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post. I was awake thinking of you and your Jack last night. I am so sorry that you were only able to catch a glimpse of that wonderful man your Jack was sure to become but by sharing this glimpse with the rest of us, you have made a lasting impression. I often wonder how you do what you do here, share with us all so openly and honestly, but please know that both you and Jack change the way we see the world, comfort others and love our families. You are both blessings to us all. XO

anymommy said...

You always make me cry. This is gorgeous. I love you - as a teacher, a mom and a person.

I was scared of my first boy. By the third one, it got a little easier ;-)

Anonymous said...

I lost my sweet, precious 11 yr old son last year. Your blog has been so helpful to me. It is so real with so many of the same feelings I have. I have twin boys that are 14 & they will never fully understand how they have saved my life from compete dispair. It is just so hard.

Anonymous said...
award nomination

Ring Torrence Stafford said...

Was posting this today in honor of April being National Poetry Month, and thought of you, thought of Jack.


It was passed from one bird to another,
the whole gift of the day.
The day went from flute to flute,
went dressed in vegetation,
in flights which opened a tunnel
through the wind would pass
to where birds were breaking open
the dense blue air -
and there, night came in.

When I returned from so many journeys,
I stayed suspended and green
between sun and geography -
I saw how wings worked,
how perfumes are transmitted
by feathery telegraph,
and from above I saw the path,
the springs and the roof tiles,
the fishermen at their trades,
the trousers of the foam;
I saw it all from my green sky.
I had no more alphabet
than the swallows in their courses,
the tiny, shining water
of the small bird on fire
which dances out of the pollen.

- Pablo Neruda

Anna Whiston-Donaldson said...

So much love and pain in these comments today. My heart goes out for those who have lost a precious loved one.

Princess Kate said...

For some reason, everything today reminded me of Jack. It was bitter sweet. I'm sending you hope and prayers.

Masala Chica said...

I had no idea what I was going to do with Nico when they told me I was going to have a boy. But when he came, I couldn't imagine him as anything but how he was. It's crazy how that happens to us.

Jack was uncommon. He was a beautiful boy, a beautiful soul. Like his mother.

Heidi said...

Just so beautiful. Jack. You and Jack. All of it.
Thank you for your words, your heart, Anna.

Unknown said...

Anna, this post is in your top 5. Beautifully written, disarmingly subtle, and a just the medicine I needed.

Now, I just need to stop crying. Hugs to you.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfully written. I wish footballs, baseballs, and hockey pucks were painted neon orange, too. I am so thankful for your blog, I absolutely love your posts.

Anonymous said...

The rock story made me tear. Jack is a special child who must have been such a blessing in his short life. And he continues to be one now through the stories you share. Thank you for that.