Friday, September 13, 2019

Thank You, Jasper, For Teaching Me And For Being My Friend

Last night I attended the memorial for Jasper "Jazzy" Echo Toms. It would have been his 17th birthday. 

My friend Peter, his father, said, "This was not part of the plan." I cannot imagine the pain his family must be suffering. Parents are not meant to outlive their children. My friend Laura, his mother, asked us to keep him alive by telling our stories of him.

I first met Japer when I was his sister Zsa Zsa's teacher. He was a bump in Laura's belly. His family came to Woodland Park to change my life, introducing me to the intentional practice of creating community through art. That picture at the top of this blog is of me playing with Jasper's family on a summer solstice when he was still my student.

I don't usually use the word "cute" to describe children, but that two-year-old Jasper, with his chubby cheeks on top of a 100 watt smile was the definition of cute. He was a boy who tried everything, but seemed mostly interested in people, both his fellow classmates and their parents. He loved to talk, to ask questions, to explain. Even in the midst of classroom chaos, I would find him engaged in conversation, looking people in the eye, his eyebrows lowered in concentration as if really trying to understand.

As he grew to be three and four-years-old, he was everyone's friend, playing with girls and boys alike, never isolating himself in one group or game for too long. It was as if he knew there was always something or someone else amazing for him to experience. At any given moment you could find him, never alone, always talking, building with blocks, pretending in a costume, squishing the play dough, or holding court at the snack table.

There was one type of play that seemed to genuinely concern him, however. He didn't care for play that involved weaponry or fighting. It didn't frighten him as much as confuse him. Should a sword fight break out he would stand off to the side, watching, clearly trying to comprehend what he was seeing. He may have gamely tried to join in once or twice, like a scientist trying to figure something out, but always stepped away after a minute or two, not sure how to take part in this energy without engaging in what he evidently viewed as unsavory behavior. These were his friends, he wanted to play with them, but not that game.

He always had a silly sense of humor and by the time he was five, he had figured out that this was how he could enter into the rowdy play, not as a combatant, but as a mirth-maker, the person who caused the others to lay down their weapons to join him by rolling on the floor (sometimes literally) laughing. The "joke" I remember most is the one-liner of simply saying the nonsense word, "Dodo!" In a way it was beneath him, this play for cheap laughs: he was an articulate, thoughtful boy and I recall almost feeling sorry for him, but he had discovered the power of lowest-common-denominator humor. Before long "Dodo" was the punchline to every classroom joke, a guaranteed laugh line, one that got funnier and funnier as the year went on. When the five-year-olds decided to write and perform an original play, Jasper chose to be a character called "Dodo," a silly jester type who was in every scene.

I learned last night from his high school classmates that he was a boy who would not be defined by social status or type, that he was a "social butterfly," a boy at home in every "friend group," be it the popular kids, the band geeks, or the debate team. I couldn't help but reflect on him as a preschooler, even then a part of every group, and when he came across one he didn't understand, he studied, then found his way into the rowdy play group without compromising one bit on his innate sense of right and wrong.

I often saw Jasper outside of school as well. One evening, we were both at a fundraiser for the Fremont Arts Council. Various artists had created art from umbrellas and it was being auctioned off. I had made a donation at the door and so hadn't intended to bid. Jasper crawled into my lap and told me he thought we should get the "dog umbrella for the school," a piece made my the artist Sarah Lovett. It was a dog fashioned from plastic mesh atop a Whinny the Pooh umbrella and filled with battery powered LED lights. It was a perfect addition to our classroom where it hung from our ceiling for years.

I saw Jasper less and less as he got older, the typical pattern of relationships preschool teachers have with their students, although we did periodically cross paths. One summer day, I found myself alone with 12-year-old Zsa Zsa and 9-year-old Jasper. Zsa Zsa had just entered middle school and had discovered one of the great truths about modern education. She went on a rant about the "total irrelevancy" of what she was expected to be learning. She would "never use it in real life." And there was Jasper, years ahead of his time, backing his sister up, providing examples from elementary school to prove the point. When I shared this memory with Zsa Zsa a couple days ago as we were sitting shiva she told me with a laugh, "We always shared a lot of joint outrage at the world."

It's not right that parents should outlive their children. As Peter said, the world is now dimmer. Jasper had grown into a fine young man, a man who had, even as a 16-year-old, already touched so many lives. But Laura is right, he will never truly be gone so long as the rest of us keep him alive through our stories, our memories, and the deeds we do on his behalf. Thank you, Jasper Echo Toms, for teaching me and for being my friend.

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