Jermaine walked into the large cathedral downtown. As soon as he walked in he saw two familiar but older faces. It had been 15 years since he last set foot in that city but he remembered every street corner and sign that he passed. Nothing had changed there. Lori and Gwendolyn were talking quietly near the front pew and trying to avoid looking at the casket in the front. Their eyes were as bloodshot as his. They had been crying too. And though they were dressed head to toe in black, looking miserable, Jermaine could tell that the years had been good to them. Their lives were well. He felt nervous. The last time he had seen Gwendolyn, he had apologized for helping Rafael break in to her house. He still carried the shame even though she had forgiven him. He took in a deep breath and walked down the aisle.
Lori watched a tall, well-dressed man approach. There was something familiar about him but she could not put her finger on it. But she was sure to see a lot of familiar faces today at the funeral. She racked her brain to place him but could not quite manage. Gwendolyn turned around to look when Lori stopped talking. It seemed that Gwendolyn knew him. Lori looked around the impressive room. People were beginning to pour through the doors and fill the pews. She recognize some of the faces from high school, others were too young for her class. She held back tears. It was too soon to be here.
The Three Reunited
Gwendolyn saw Jermaine walking towards them. She felt nervous. He had changed a lot. He was taller, more sure of himself, well dressed. She gave him a little smile and greeted him with a hug. They pulled apart and for a moment, neither spoke. Then Gwendolyn cleared her throat, “Lori, you remember Jermaine from high school? He transferred out junior year and moved to New York.”
Lori nodded and shook his hand. “Even though I am glad to see you, I wish it were under better circumstances. Mrs. Wiles was too young to die. And from cancer?”
Gwendolyn lowered her head and shook it slowly.
The pastor walked up to the podium and the service began. There were a lot of tears along the way and they sang her favorite hymns. Finally, her husband stood to speak. The three watched as a devastated man took the stage.
“Thank you all for coming. I know my wife Rebecca would have appreciated seeing every single one you. Rebecca was never happier than when she spent a day helping her students. She saw the best in all of you and was proud to be your teacher. When she asked me to move to this neighborhood, I honestly thought that she was crazy. But she was passionate. Everyday seeing her excited about teaching was more than enough to justify it all. My wife touched many lives but I hope you know that each one of you touched hers as well. Now, I would like to invite a few of her old students to speak. Thank you,” he said choking out the last word.
Lori was the first to speak. “Hello, many of you know that I grew up here. I had two classes with Mrs. Wiles and even with everything stacked against me with the dangerous neighborhood and my mother telling me to stop chasing crazy dreams, Mrs. Wiles helped me see the world differently. Full of possibilities. It was not easy but with her help, I managed to get good enough grades for college and a scholarship. After two years with her help, I left for college with all the lessons she had taught me. Lessons about life. Without her, I know I would not be where I am now. A writer. The person she always saw in me.” Lori turned and left a copy of her first short story on top of the casket and returned to her seat.
Gwendolyn was next. “When Mrs. Wiles first really talked to me, I had a black eye. I had put my ex in the hospital after he broke down my front door. I was a wreck inside and out. But, like Lori said, that was not how Mrs. Wiles saw me. She saw me as a fighter. She saw me as intelligent. After she found my science notebook one day, she cornered me. In a five minute conversation, she changed my whole world view from a dark tunnel of gangs and abuse to one where, maybe I could be something. She helped me study, got a tutor so I could learn higher levels of science that our school didn’t offer and she wrote me a letter of recommendation for a forensics program in down town Los Angeles. I do not know how she found the time to help me. She was busy with school and helping, well, all of you too. But she did. She made me feel like I could really do something with my life. And I dedicate every case I work to her. I find answers the way she taught me to.” Gwendolyn walked to the casket and left a flower on top.
Jermaine was last. He was shaking. “Hello. Uh… I am not as good of a speaker as Gwen or Lori. And I think I was probably the hardest lost cause Mrs. Wiles took on. I struggled every day of school, even with her help. I was also in a gang. I did not want to be but it seemed like the only option. I know a lot of you have been through that. She saw that I wanted out. And she helped me. I worked as hard as I could to get my grades up and my mom used up all her savings to send me to New York. And I got a second chance. I know she has helped a few other kids that way. She changed many lives. And I know I am alive today because of her.” He turned and walked to the casket. Gently, he placed an “I LOVE NY” shirt on top and sat back down.
Everyone was silent. The whole room was full of stories like theirs. It was impossible to believe that one woman with such a short life, helped so many people overcome so many challenges. But she had. She touched so many lives. She had taken each day and used it purposefully. And taught a cathedral full of people how to face challenges once she was gone.
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