You gave light to this world . . .
By Erin Hess
(written September 1998)
Since August 1997, I have been teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer at Madona Gymnasium in Eastern Latvia. Life looks different from the other side of the desk.
On Sept. 6, 1998, my former student, Inga Knostenburg, died in a car accident. Inga had graduated in June and should have begun university classes the next day. I was one of four faculty members who attended her funeral the following Friday.
The school director and I carried a wreath inside to a small area where the service would take place. Inga's mother stood at the side of the casket, looking gaunt as she received us. We shook hands, and in Latvian she said, "Inga loved you. She always had stories about you." Her words cut into me and I told her how nice and smart Inga was and that I was sorry.
In the lace-lined casket, Inga wore a delicate wreath of flowers around her head and the same maroon dress she had worn three months earlier at her graduation. Her mother - who had received all the guests and stood at Inga's head, crying, shaking her head, arranging and rearranging her daughter's hair - wept openly until her husband and son took their places beside her. Then, forgetting herself, she assumed a stoic pose that protected the men and allowed them to mourn. Inga's father almost collapsed, and her brother didn't stop crying until we reached the grave.
Family members laid kisses on Inga's right cheek, bruised where she had hit the pavement. A small child, lifted up to look down at Inga, playfully thrust one hand down on her now-cold breast. Death was interesting and as incomprehensible to him as it was to the rest of us.
When the lace shroud was pulled up and over Inga and the coffin lid placed down, I hushed cries tight in my chest, allowing a headache to pound against my eyes. Pallbearers took up their burden and we mourners followed behind. Outside, Inga's classmates, my once-smiling students, now wore red and haggard looks. It was them, I thought, all of them in that coffin, under the lace.
Our procession ended at the muddy gravesite. The casket was laid over the empty grave, the lid was lifted, and a new ceremony commenced. A bow cried across violin strings as a woman read poetry and told us about Inga's life. Mourners and family laid flowers in the casket. Final good-byes were said, the lid was placed back on, and Inga was lowered into the earth. Shovelfuls of dirt were held out for those wishing to throw a handful onto the coffin. Then four men worked to put back into the earth what should have never been taken out. We stood and we watched - watching until its completion.
The pregnant earth was patted and a handmade cross stuck into the ground. Madona Gymnasium's collective was called forward to lay our wreaths, and I placed my four roses (even numbers denote death in Latvian culture) at Inga's feet, at the base of the cross. We stood around the grave while Rasma, Inga's ninth grade class teacher, said some words.
"Inga, you gave light to this world. May your light yet shine even though you have gone." More tears. Clenched jaws. Minds agape.
After standing three hours in dampness and drizzle, we proceeded to the back of the cemetery, where endless food and shots of liquor were waiting. Women, directed by Inga's mother, circulated with baskets, bearing sandwiches and pastries. Shots of stinging alcohol were downed, followed by shots of something numbingly sweet.
As we left, Inga's mother approached us. Again she told me how much Inga had liked me and thanked me for coming. Trembling, I told her, "Inga was a beautiful, nice, smart girl, and I really liked her, too." Then she turned to Rasma. "The lace in Inga's coffin should have been used for her wedding, not her funeral."
Inga should have been a lot of things. She should have been entering Rezekne Augstskola, for one. She had dreamed of becoming a lawyer but thought herself too lazy and her grades not good enough. I encouraged her over and over to just try - just apply and see what happens. A day before the funeral, I learned Inga had been accepted to study law. She had indeed reached out for her dream, only to have her fingers crushed.
Days later, as I hurried to school, I remembered Inga's words on her graduation day. She had leaned down to give me flowers, kissed my cheek, and said, "Thank you for everything. I'll always remember what you said to me."
That convinces me people waste too much time in silence. I saw potential and vitality in Inga - in all my students - and I encouraged it. I see that same light in my students this year. It would be much easier to brush off the slower students after class, or write off the class clown as a waste of time and brainpower. It would be easier to leave the quicker students to their own devices and assume everything is okay with them. It would be easier to see average students as average and nothing more. It would be easier - for me.
But I remember my 12th-grade American government teacher, Ms. Penny Andrew, who encouraged her students to think and ask questions. She asked about our weekends and took time for a conversation. She invested in us and was my first teacher to do this. Gratefully, she wasn't the last - as I learned during my four years at PLU.
Why did it take so long for this to happen? Are students told they can dream, reach, achieve? Or are they told to just "be"?
When you see a sunset, don't you comment on its beauty? When you see mountains and forest mirrored in a pristine lake, don't you marvel aloud at the majesty before you? When you watch fireworks light up the night sky, don't you "ooh" and "aah" and whistle and hoot over the spectacular display?
Now imagine walking with a loved one in that sunset. Imagine your children and family splashing in that pristine lake. Imagine sitting in the grass with your friends watching the glow of those fireworks light up their faces.
Do you tell them that they, too, are a part of that beauty, or do you waste more time in silence?