The County Press

Students teach lesson that within us all is the courage and strength to reach for the sun



Editor’s Note: With the departure of local columnist, Carolyn LeDuc-Krehel, The County Press has enlisted the talents of a few guest columnists, who will help us fill this space until we find a permanent replacement. If you’re interested in contributing, please contact Emily Caswell at R aped by three teenage boys when she was 12; discovered his brother’s body after he committed suicide; survived a bomb exploding inches from his head in Iraq; fought a heroin addiction after being physically and sexually abused by her mother’s husbands.

If these descriptions sound like Hollywood movie plots, I understand. It’s hard to fathom such horrifying and real-life events happening to our friends and neighbors in Lapeer. Yet, sadly, these are true stories. These are just some of the tragedies that have impacted the lives of my Mott College students.

When Emily Caswell, brand manager at The County Press, asked me to write an occasional guest column for this paper, it didn’t take long to find a topic. Next to my family, my students are foremost on my mind.

Over the years teaching composition at Mott College, I have become closely acquainted with my students as they write essays about their lives’ most poignant and painful moments. Yet, when I made the decision to become an English teacher, I naively assumed my career would revolve simply around thesis statements and run-on sentences, introduction paragraphs and semicolons. However, I now deeply understand that in the course of time, an English teacher will come face to face with every possible tragedy that pulses in the students they take to heart.

Recently, one sunny afternoon at the college, I sat next to my beautiful student who had been raped as a girl. An outsider might observe this young woman with aqua-colored eyes and perfectly white smile and assume a life of happiness and ease. Unfortunately, her childhood was anything but. Her early years were ravaged by rape.

For her essay, she was bravely capturing in words what evil she had suffered in her young life, how it led to years of drug addiction, and why on the night she overdosed on a bottle of pills and almost died, she survived. It was that night, teetering between life and death, bleeding from a head wound when she fell out of a car, that she recognized within herself the will to live. The desire to fight and the strength and resilience necessary to reclaim her life.

I looked at her — stared at her — quite simply stopped cold in awe of her incomprehensible courage and strength.

My father often remarked that “in every life, rain will fall.” However, I have learned that in some unlucky lives, people are assaulted not just by rain, but by piercing winds and raging waters. That they manage to survive is almost miraculous.

As she shared these memories of despair with me, an older man stopped at our table. This former student had lost his brother to suicide; in fact, horrifically, he was the person to discover his beloved brother’s body. I have conversed many times with this tough, inspirational man. He has traveled a daunting path, so I am always humbled by his desire to help others. At most every opportunity, he reaches out to others with compassion and words of wisdom birthed through suffering.

“Life isn’t for sissies,” he smiled as he looked at us.

This is certainly true of him. For his research paper, he studied the impact of suicide on families. Then, at the end of my course, he stood in front of a room packed full of young people and spoke about his brother’s death and how it changed his life. In great measure, it became clear that his ultimate purpose in speaking to his young classmates was to save their lives: seek help when they need it. Know the signs of depression. Stay on guard for the symptoms in others. Be a friend to the suffering. Even though his voice caught and his body trembled, he pushed through his emotions for the good of others.

Whenever I see him around campus, leaning over a computer, chatting with a young person, I know he is aiming to make a difference. To me, he is an everyday hero.

At times, I have driven from the college in silence, quietly looking out the car window at an ironically rosy scene — blissful children on bikes, smiling neighbors on a front porch, peaceful Maples gently swaying in a spring breeze — yet I feel turmoil. A heavy, profound sadness after hearing about lives beat down by abuse, abandonment, drugs, and death. Yet, thankfully, at other times, I leave the school feeling that perhaps I was in the presence of holiness — that there must be something divine in these people who have faced the unrelenting storms of life and yet remain upright! I wonder: what accounts for their indomitable human spirit? Their stout hearts?

In the spring, one of my favorite moments is discovering a tiny seedling poking through the soil, reaching for the sun. I often question how such a tender sliver of life can survive snow and ice, battering winds, and almost unbearable temperatures. Yet, here it is. Fighting to live, even hopeful, perhaps. I am reminded of my beautiful students. Inspirational people, young and old, who, like the seemingly fragile shoot, have endured the long, cold winter of the heart. But they, too, fight back. Reach upward. Grow. Fight to thrive.

Socrates once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I will be forever grateful to my students for providing me with that understanding. Life is hard for many people, so walk in compassion. (And be grateful when your head rests easy on its pillow at night.) I also will be forever humbled by what my invaluable students have taught me: magnificent and life-affirming courage and strength are all around us. Everywhere are valiant people reaching for the sun.

Wendy Byard teaches composition at Mott College, serves as a Lapeer Community Schools Board of Education trustee and is an ordained deacon at First Presbyterian Church. Previously, Byard taught English and history at North Branch High School and was an advertising account executive in Ann Arbor and Chicago. She is a published author and writer for On The Town Magazine.

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