For over 10 years, I have had a dream of celebrating a “big” birthday with friends and family who have had significant impact on my life over the years. When I first envisioned the event I immediately thought of teachers who said and did things that I still remember after decades. I thought of spiritual influences who poured their lives into me by teaching me in Sunday School or by chaperoning youth trips. I thought of friends from each season of my life: high school, college, young married, new parents, raising teenagers and now empty nesting. I thought of co-workers over a twenty-five year career who are like family to me. I have been incredibly blessed over five decades and this past Saturday I was able to fulfill that dream at a 50th birthday celebration with so many of those people who I love so much. It was a very happy day full of love and friendships and one I will cherish forever.
On the following Sunday morning, before getting ready for church, I had my coffee in my favorite quiet time place, surrounded by bouquets of flowers left over from the day before. I read through the sweet birthday cards again and was still glowing from the events of the day. When my phone rang, I recognized the number of a dear friend who had celebrated with me on Saturday and answered expecting her always cheerful voice. Instead, I knew something wasn’t right…immediately. Her voice was soaked with the tears she was trying to hold back and it took all she had to share the news. There had been an accident……and our co-worker and friend, Kenna, was gone. In a matter of moments happiness turned to sadness and rejoicing turned to mourning. Just….like…..that.
To try to describe Kenna Robards, I feel like I need color words. She was just vibrant to those who knew her and she had an impact on everyone she met. She was funny and supportive, but could also be real with you when it was necessary. She made the most of each day and crammed more into 24 hours than many of us can into a week. She taught middle school, and 7th grade at that, which in and of itself takes an angelic quality in my opinion. Her students adored her. Her co-workers loved her. The administration hoped for a school full of faculty just like her.
As I have listened to students and teachers talk about her for hours over the past three days, I have heard the words “beautiful” and “kind” more than I could count. One of my favorite descriptions is that she was “the perfect combination of sass and class”. I think that fits her so well. Kenna loved sports and cheered on her favorite teams with intense enthusiasm. She was competitive and loved to win. To know her was to love her. Kenna was just special for a lot of reasons, but mostly because of the way she cared about people. And she cared about lots and lots of people.
On Monday, we took a day out of “business as usual” at school and spent the day as faculty, staff and students, loving on each other. Many of the students wrote kind words about Kenna to share with her family. Flowers and cards were placed outside of her classroom. Her colleagues, who were her friends as well, could be heard sharing stories about Kenna that often resulted in intertwining tears with laughter. The community showed up in a big way as counselors from other schools and clergy were present to help support us. Caring folks from many different organizations have provided food for the staff the entire week. E-mails from community leaders, fellow administrators and others who understand the impact of losing a beloved teacher so suddenly flooded the inbox of our principal and a news station even showed up to cover the story when they realized how incredibly special Kenna was. As hard as the week has been, it has been made slightly easier because people have been so kind and compassionate.
As I reflect on the parallel between the highs of Saturday and the lows of Sunday and the days to follow, a few things stand out to me through all of it. Although the reasons to gather were much different, they felt similar in many ways. On Saturday we shared stories and laughed and cried together. We hugged and fellowshipped and reminisced. I felt overwhelmed with love and support. On Sunday and the days that followed we shared stories and laughed and cried together. We hugged and fellowshipped and reminisced. I felt overwhelmed with love and support. One day we celebrated, one day we mourned, but through both occasions one thing was abundantly clear…..relationships and people matter.
Often we have no idea of the impact we might be making on someone. Many of those I invited on Saturday didn’t realize what their influence had meant to me. They just lived their lives in such a way that it mattered to others. Kenna was one of the people who lived that way. I can’t change what has happened, as much as I want to, but I can honor Kenna by living my life intentionally like she did. I want to love God and love others well as she did. I want to let people know what they mean to me while I still have the opportunity and I want to let the things that are less important than people take a back burner to what matters. I want to be present and to listen. I want others to know they matter to me.
As a school we’ve adopted the hashtag #kindlikekenna and nothing could be more fitting or more inspirational. In a world full of anger, impatience, harshness, entitlement, jealousy, bitterness and hate….kindness matters. Love matters. People matter.
As days pass, the sting of losing this amazing young woman will begin to hurt less and less, but her legacy will continue forever and her impact will be felt far beyond what any of us may ever know. At my birthday celebration I had pictures of three women who are no longer living, but who impacted me so significantly that I wanted to remember them on my special day. Two of them were my teachers. I have no doubt that many of the students who shared their lives with Kenna will look back over the years and remember her as someone who left her mark on them. I’m so incredibly grateful for the short time I had with Kenna and I pledge to forever remind myself to be #kindlikekenna. We’ll miss her so much.