Any student death would be a tragedy.
But this wasn’t just any student.
This was one of the four people I’ve agreed to get matching tattoos with.
This was one of the three most quoted people on my Facebook.
This was one of the two people who got through the do not disturb on my phone - and who took advantage of that.
This was the kid who wanted to bring Lizzie to Kandern to stay with me for a visit so she would agree to let me officiate their wedding someday.
This was the kid who instead of his name wrote “your favorite student” on a quiz the first week of class.
This was the kid who I sent a graduation card to that said “You’re my favorite” on the front but I added “not” in pen because I emphatically say I don’t have favorites.
This was the kid who emphatically ignored the “not” on the card.
This was the kid who literally texted me a selfie from the stage the moment he sat down after crossing to receive his diploma during his graduation ceremony.
This was the kid who I told every student I taught for the last four semesters to text on the first day of class asking, “What is the purpose of reading the Bible?” because I put money down that he would respond, “To foster loving relationships with God and other people.”
This was the kid who called me multiple times at midnight in Kandern to ask if my new tattoo was real, to chat with me as he walked across campus to pick up his dinner, to tell me funny stories about Health class with Mr. Cyr.
This was the kid who sent me memes he made of himself because he thought they were so funny.
This was the kid who kept me on the phone at 2am my time so he could share the moment his viral TikTok hit 69,000 views with someone.
This was the kid who let me pray with him and cried on a call with me as Jesus broke the lies that had taken hold in his life.
This was the kid who I filled out a reference form just last month and raved about how loved he was and how much he loves Jesus.
I’ve never cried so much in my life as I did last Saturday.
College students aren’t supposed to die unexpectedly. This kid didn’t do drugs; he didn’t drink. This kid was afraid to swear.
This kid loved Jesus.
I have no doubt in my mind that Bryce is with Jesus right now. Bryce knows how loved he is, and we will celebrate that resurrection truth in the future someday. For now I’m in mourning for the loss of Bryce in life. I get messages from other kids, and those are still a joy and encouragement to me, but I’ll miss the funny jokes from Bryce or the important questions about how to live in a God honoring way. Before Bryce’s sister came to BFA this year, he wavered between the extremes of how excited he was that I would teach her and how nervous he was that people would figure out she’s actually funnier than he is. He talked to me a lot about how much he loved both his little sisters. Turns out his teenage sister is an absolute delight, and she did in class a couple days before spring break say to me after I joked about how people hearing my lesson on Genesis 38 out of context might be worried about my teaching, “Don’t worry, Ms. Hewett, if anyone comes for you, I’ve got you. I’ll tell them it was biblical semen and you had to say it.” I was looking forward to telling Bryce that story, but I never got the chance. Ironically, I did have the chance in the same week to tell his sister the story of Bryce three years ago demonstrating his subpar drawing skills on his dorm brother’s hand and how he announced to me that his attempt at drawing male genitalia had produced an image on Brooks’s hand that looked more like female reproductive organs. This led to a hilarious conversation about the plural of the word “uterus” with Bryce and Brooks. Both uteruses and uteri are acceptable, in case you were wondering.
Bryce was a universally loved funny kid, but he was more than his humor, and I was privileged to watch him flourish from the first weeks in my class to the last weeks of his life. He wasn’t afraid of hard topics, and he would process his struggles with me honestly. He would ask me for prayer requests just as I asked him how I could pray for him specifically. Working with teenagers is a joy, and Bryce let me see the whole range of himself from serious to silly. I will always cherish the insomnia inspired conversations we had as neither of us followed a normal sleep pattern. I will always remember how he genuinely cared for others and wanted to see them move closer to Jesus too. I will always celebrate his choice to seek Jesus instead of following culture.
While I was on sabbatical writing my memoir, Bryce gave me permission to use a story of him in my chapter titled “On Teaching.” I’ve included an excerpt from my draft here.
When I think back on my years as a student, very few lessons stand out. Instead, I remember the patterns with which my teachers engaged me. I remember that they cared about me as a person, and they were excited when I got good grades as an afterthought to me growing as a person. I remember more details of Mr. Weber’s stories about his college pranks than the details of his Old Testament lectures. However, he’s the teacher who made me research James which first started my fascination with living out my faith in a way that included a permanent mark to remind me and declare to others my commitment to Jesus. I remember him storing snack food in his desk for me and letting me hide in his room during lunch when I was at the height of my anxiety attacks triggered by a number of my peers. I remember him encouraging me to pursue a Bible degree in addition to the English major because it was going to help me be a better follower of Jesus. I remember him teaching me.
I try to create a similar learning environment that allows students to recognise my teaching is more than just a lecture. Sometimes it stands out in a particular lesson when eager learners teach their peers through project presentations.
“Yes, as my group members have shared, there are lots of reasons that point to the details of creation that mean there was a God which is what the teleological argument for the existence of God is about. But the most important reason we have is pigeons. Pigeons are legit.”
There was a pause for laughter at this point. I had been chuckling through Bryce’s contribution to the presentation, and laughed loudly at this point.
“They have all these super special developed things about them, and it’s just impossible to think that there wasn’t a God who wanted to make these awesome birds.”
He rambled quite a bit more, but the gist was, “Pigeons are legit; ergo, God exists.”
I was full on laughing through the last bit of his explanation, but he got the point across that the teleological argument for the existence of God is based on the details of creation that point to a loving creator.
It was near the end of the school year, and I let the students do their apologetics activities based on their interest. This particular group had wanted to investigate some of the arguments for the existence of God. I’m always clear to tell the students none of these are proofs that God exists but rather that they give us rational explanations that support our faith in the existence of the God of the Bible. This particular student had been excited to read in his research that proponents of this position could look at the intricate details of how pigeons could forage and thrive and see it as a reflection of a loving God who cared for the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and the ridiculous teenagers in my classroom.
I’ve found students learn better when they laugh. I learn better that way too. I look for the joy, the humour, and the fart jokes in class because if I can connect the content to the laughter, it’s more likely to stick in the students’ memory. I love the spontaneous moments that will help the students to see the relevance of my content. They might not find the immediate relevance with the laughter, but the longer I can stick it in their brains, the more likely they will have opportunities to see the significance of the lesson. When I was revising the final exam for this class period, I snuck in an addition to the multiple choice question about the teleological argument asking which argument for the existence of God used things like “legit pigeons and the perfect distance from the sun to the earth” as evidences of a loving God. As I proctored the exam, I watched students turn the pages and thoughtfully fill in the scantron bubbles to show they remembered and understood the four steps of Bible study and the basics of Calvinism compared to Arminianism. I kept my eyes on Bryce when he flipped to the second to last page. I had already seen a couple other students look up at me and point to the exam with a wry smile when they reached question 87. Bryce broke into a full grin as he looked up at me.
Pigeons might not be a relevant part of my students’ daily lives, but a different student from this particular class period sent me a picture of herself surrounded by pigeons in the streets of Rome during her senior trip the next fall. I don’t care if they remember the word “teleological” when they see pigeons, but if they remember that pigeons are legit, they will remember there’s a logical reason to believe in a loving creator God. Ideally, they’ll connect that to the God of the Bible and look for how they can use the steps of Bible study they learned in my class to foster loving relationships with God and other people.
Knowing that those laughter filled lessons are the exception, I have to hope that I can integrate the content learning with those unique moments that will stick with students long after they leave my class.
Every teacher would love it if their students listened with rapt attention to every lecture and could recall the laboured over details of lessons, but my short teaching career so far has taught me that my greatest teaching moments happen outside the classroom. Students are listening all the time, and I’m constantly surprised at what sticks. It’s a delicate combination of in and out of class material that they retain and take with them, so I always have to be aware of what I’m saying during any given interaction. Lessons don’t end when the bell rings. In fact, the best lessons happen when the students perk up after the bell.
Bryce gave his “pigeons are legit” lesson late in the semester, but he’d chosen to learn from my classroom teaching much earlier in the semester during an after class lesson I didn’t mean to teach. He’s a boisterous student who sat himself in the back row next to his best friend and soon to be girlfriend and signed his name as “your favourite student ever” the first week I met him. He’s not the first student to try to claim that title, but I had no basis to know how much I’d actually like this kid. I had a sense he genuinely wanted to learn about the Bible in my class, but he was also a really chatty and distractible student.
“Bryce, hold up for a sec,” I asked him as the bell rang during the second week of class. I wanted to find out for sure if he was interested in learning from me or if he was just a goof off. I had another student who I was helping with the in class assignment, so I wrapped up the conversation with her before I could give Bryce my full attention.
That brief interaction had given two of Bryce’s senior dorm brothers time to come into the room and flank me before I had a chance to talk to him. They were my TA and my independent study student who were known to frequently hang out in my room after school to talk about theology or to come to my house to bake cookies and discuss how to live more like Jesus.
“Yes, ma’am?” Bryce looked nervous, much more nervous than I intended him to be. It was only made worse by the two tall young men standing on either side of me waiting to discuss the nuances of what it meant to be a Christian advocating for the oppressed in today’s nuanced American political landscape.
“Look, I just want to know if you’re interested in actually learning in this class.”
“Say yes,” one of the seniors demanded without giving him a chance to speak for himself.
“Dude, let him answer for himself,” I said.
“Yes, ma’am, I do.”
“Okay, then I’m going to help you learn.”
“Do whatever she tells you,” the other senior insisted.
“That’s all, I just needed to know. You can go.”
Bryce bolted from the room.
“Guys, you weren’t supposed to intimidate him. I just wanted to find out if he was interested in being pushed to grow in my class.”
“He should be.”
“You can’t make that decision for him.”
The next day in class, I greeted students as they came in and watched Bryce pull his best friend to the front row.
“Dude, why are we sitting here? I don’t want to.”
“No, man, we have to.”
I wasn’t meant to overhear the comments, but I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. Bryce didn’t stay in the front row, but he did keep learning through the rest of the year. He stayed in my room to talk with other students about how to live out his faith, and he came to make cookies at my house and ask me about controversial theological issues with his dorm brothers.
I am sure Bryce forgot the word “teleological” within hours of taking my final exam, but one of our last conversations was about how he knew he was deeply loved by Jesus. We talked a lot about how he wanted to live his life in a way that honored God instead of letting culture tell him to do whatever he wanted. We talked about how I wanted to do the same. I know Bryce did point people to Jesus. I know he wasn’t perfect. I know I want the same kind of legacy as Bryce as I’m not perfect but do my best to live in a God honoring way that points people to Jesus.
There is no way to make sense of this tragedy or to justify this trauma. Please don’t try. Instead, join with me as I look at those legit pigeons and praise the Lord for this new day where I can love God and love others. I can’t predict the future; all I can do is keep my eyes on Jesus and listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit as I do my best to honor the Lord with my life. Remember, Aslan is on the move.
When the trees fall down
The stone table cracks open
That’s the avalanche