Thirty years ago, I heard the news that John Lennon had been shot. Every year since, the morning news on NPR reminds me again of that day.
I was a young, second-year teacher then, with four sections of grade nine “World Cultures” and one section of A.P. United States history. Mine was a Catholic school, and we’d had Monday, December 8 off because it was a holy day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
When we returned to school on Tuesday, then, I’d be facing the dreaded three-day weekend effect compounded by the excitement of the approaching holidays. This meant that it would be hard to get my students’ minds back into the glories of Islamic civilization or the roughshod politics of Jacksonian democracy. And that was before the dreadful story broke and made it impossible for me to imagine teaching as if the world had not just ended.
I stayed up late watching the news unspool, with news of the shooting becoming news of his death and morphing into retrospective and tribute. My husband and I stayed up even later, playing records and tearfully talking about what John Lennon had meant to us growing up. Before we went to bed, I loaded a dozen LPs into a shopping bag.
I don’t remember the next day very well, but one of my former students, Denise, does. We reconnected at her high school reunion last year, and shortly afterward we became Facebook friends. On December 8, she sent me this message:
29 years ago you cancelled your history classes and played Beatles music for us. I believe you even turned off the lights, said something like "I have no words so let's listen to his." As I recall we all sat in silence. It was a beautiful tribute since there really were no words. I never thanked you for that...Thank You! xo
Another student chimed in, “I can’t believe you remember that!” Denise replied,
I never forgot it, just never had the opportunity to say thanks. It made a terrible day a little better for us.
I still miss John Lennon, the music he still had to give and the work I believe he would have done on behalf of peace. But I did get a valuable lesson in teaching from him: Sometimes the biggest impact you have has very little to do with the subject you teach.
Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.