There’s a little girl I think about often…at least two or three times each week she comes to mind. She is singing a song, playing a comedy scene in one of our high school productions, or just bounding into class with the kind of energy she demanded of herself. Her name is Brooke. Her name was Brooke. She died two years ago.
I am not one who thinks more highly of people in death than I did of them in life, so this is not what this is about. Brooke was an extraordinary person, and one from whom I learned much more than I was able to teach her as one of her high school teachers.
When I think of Brooke, she is usually singing a song from the Broadway musical, Shrek. “I Know It’s Today” is sung by the character Fiona, actually three Fionas at different stages of her life. Each sings that she knows a prince is coming for her, today. Three of my students performed this song in class, and I liked it so much I kept having them repeat it for other students. All three girls were good in the piece, but Brooke, like she always did, stood out. Not because of her stump arm. Not because of her stunted growth. Not even because of her singing. It was because of Brooke’s wonderful outlook on life that shone through in everything she did.
|I took photos of all my students and posted them on the "artists" wall. This is Brooke her Freshman year.|
Brooke was born with a lot of physical problems. I never knew exactly what they were, but I knew that there had been problems since birth. She told me many times that she wasn’t expected to live a week, let alone 16 years, the age she was when she entered high school. She had been in and out of hospitals her whole life, but it did not weigh on her. She was highly intelligent, open and loving to everyone, and wise beyond her years. I could not find a student who didn’t think the world of her. At first I thought some students might mistreat her or be mean to her and so I was a bit over-protective at first. But I was completely wrong, as her mother told me when she called me to say, basically, “back off”. I should have trusted Brooke to handle things as superbly as she did. Even the most difficult students, the ones who hated life, hated all their teachers, and bullied other students, treated Brook with respect. She just brought the best out of people.
|Brooke as a newsie in "Gypsy"|
The highlight of Brooke’s Freshman year was a Make-A-Wish trip to Hollywood to visit the cast on the set of the Disney show, “The Wizards of Waverly Place”. She came back on cloud nine, having met her idols and starting to feel that she, too, could be a real actress. After that trip is when she began asking about her chances to be an actress on TV.
Before I had the chance to use Brooke in one of my productions, one of my students, who was directing a short musical for our local area thespian competition, cast her in her show. Brooke had natural comedic timing and I found myself laughing after her every delivery, even after having seen the production at least a dozen times. She had great comedic timing, which you cannot teach. I subsequently cast her in my own productions and found a role for her in most every one. But one of her proudest moments was early on, when she worked backstage on a production of “Little Women”. During a scene where the character Beth dies, I had a kite symbolically fly up and away. Brooke flew the kite and it was quite beautiful. After each performance she asked me how I liked the kite. I just said to her, “It was perfect”, which it was.
In class she was enthusiastic, if not always in attendance due to ongoing challenges with her health. But when she was there class was different. The students upped their game whenever Brooke was watching. There was less of the belly-aching that can go on with high school students. And the ones who usually sat in the back of the class, unwilling to allow themselves to open up enough to bare real feelings, even they began to join us in some of the in-class performances. I noticed how they looked at Brooke, and I could sense the impact she had on them.
I wanted a great future for Brooke. She deserved it. I envisioned her on her own Disney show, “Just Brooke”, or something equally as corny. The world needed to get to know this kind of energy.
I knew Brooke would be successful at whatever she did, given the time. But time was the big issue. Although she never said anything, I could tell she was worried about her time on Earth. I guess that is why she was packing in so much living while she could. There was no telling when another physical challenge would raise its far-too-ugly head.
I left my teaching position before Brooke’s Senior year of high school. In the fall I received a message on Facebook from one of my former students to tell me that Brooke had passed away. I was stunned and heartsick. I really had convinced myself that Brooke would be alive when I was old and gray. I was certain I would enjoy my retirement watching Brooke on her own show. I wanted so many more people to get to know her, to experience life from her point of view, and to enjoy that unbridled enthusiasm for theatre, love of her family, and especially of her sister. Few deaths have seemed so unfair, made me so angry, and left me feeling so helpless. I try to make sense of Brooke’s death. Several times each week I think about Brooke and try to figure it all out, all the while Brooke is singing her Shrek song in the background. Why her? Why all the suffering? How did she overcome it all and live the full, gracious life she did in only 19 short years? But it is, of course, impossible. How can you make sense of a senseless event?
I guess the reason I think about her so much is that she did so much more good in her 19 years than I have in my 57. When I think of Brooke, I become less angry, more enthusiastic. When I think of Brooke I demand better of myself. For Brooke’s sake I am working to enjoy life more, be a better friend, try to become the person Brooke knew we all were. Brooke motivates me to be a more human human being. I am just so sad that she had to leave us for me to learn those lessons.
So now I picture her in her heaven, still cracking jokes, stirring people’s passions, and showing us all how to live (if only we would listen). And I picture her waiting for her prince. I know it’s today.