Ten years ago (to the day February 8th) I could hear my mom on the phone in the living room saying, “How will I tell Johanne?” I remember thinking, please say she’s very sick, but don’t say she’s dead. But as my mom would soon tell me, she was. My favorite teacher, only 25 years old, dead. I do not know for how long I cried in my mother’s lap. Did that really matter? Did anything really matter at that point? The person my twelve year old self admired the most on the face of the earth, my hero, was gone. How could the kind, enthusiastic, and remarkable Ms. Jennifer Jill Castillo die? How could death take away such exuberance?
It wasn’t fair, but somehow the world continued to spin without her. My twelve year old self really thought it couldn’t. It was my first experience losing someone very close to me, and it was not easy.
Is death ever easy? May be? I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem like it, regardless of how long and how happy a life the individual lived. Granted, I’m still rather young, so I don’t have much experience with it. But it seems people start to get used to it as they get old. How can that be? I know it is a common thing- in fact it is one of the few things we all have in common. But despite its universality, it is tragic every time. To varying degrees depending on age and circumstance, but still… to lose a feeling thinking acting dreaming loving human being forever…
Death is a commoner, but every human it takes is unique.
The tragedy of death is also what makes everything more special. It is the shadow that focuses our attention on the radiance of life. It makes all our moments on this earth more poignant, more fleeting, and more beautiful. Playwright Tennessee Williams reminds us that in the face of death “the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.” Eventually, however, time will catch up and we will all be lost.
Ms. Castillo made every minute of her life worthwhile. As a teacher she was creative and engaging. She was also a genius- she skipped two grades, played several instruments and sang, could multiply three-digit numbers in her head, and was a fountain of knowledge. But of all her admirable qualities, her kindness stood out most. She inspired and loved everyone around her.
I remember she had us write letters to her in these journals called “chatty letters.” Where we could write anything to her and she would respond to each and every one of us. She was a huge Laker fan. She gave us chocolate when we took her difficult tests. She loved school dress-up days and class competitions. She caught anyone chewing gum in her presence. She would get us Krispy-Kreme donuts for every A on our report card. On my 12th birthday, she gave me my pet rabbits, Plume and Cashew. When she sang, her voice- that of an angels (there is just no other word for it!)- left everyone in absolute awe. She came to school early and stayed late to help her students. She always gave her best effort, and wanted us to do the same. She started teaching at a local high school at the age of 18 and apparently the deans wouldn’t let her go back to UCLA for her college coursework because they thought she was one of the high school students. She would plan her friends birthdays six months in advance. She encouraged me in all my activities- from running the mile in P.E. to competing in the geography bee. One all her birthdays, she told us she was turning 37. She made a point of greeting each and every one of us as we entered her classroom. There is so much more, but hopefully this gives you a glimpse of the kind of intelligent, giving, and loving person she was.
I sometimes feel overly dramatic writing about all this, and clearly it is a very personal thing to share publicly, so I am naturally afraid to bear myself in this way, but I still wanted to share it because of the impression it had on me and still does. It is such a big part of how I grew up and who I am today.
When she died I found the outpouring of love and admiration for her both wonderful and peculiar. Wonderful because it showed how many people’s lives she had touched, and peculiar because it seems that too often we wait to show people our appreciation until after they are gone. When she died I remember that one of the things that made me happy was that I had told her when she was alive how much she meant to me as a teacher. Don’t wait for people to die or leave to tell them what they mean to you and to show them your gratitude. They won’t know when they’re dead.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her, and she will always be a source of inspiration. It may seem silly, but my twelve year old self made a vow that I would remember her every day as a reminder to myself to make the most of life and appreciate those around me.
After she died I tried writing down a list of memories I had of her in a desperate attempt to keep her ever-present and to not let them slip away into the ever expanding fog of the past.
But still, the memories have gotten hazier. And though I am perpetually distanced from the event, its power in shaping me will never disappear. I will always remember her with the pure clarity of a twelve year old’s admiration.
And today, my friends, is her 36th birthday. She is forever young, forever gifted, forever kind; one could say she embodies life itself. She was a genius in both her mental and social capacities. In the short time that I knew her I saw in her a brilliance of character that I aspire to and admire so much.
So, without further ado, Happy 36th Birthday Ms. Castillo!!!!
If you would like to read the eulogy written by one of her best friends as well as see some pictures, follow this link: http://homesliced.com/lucys/jen.htm#