Last Thursday, more than 175 people gathered in the church to mourn the loss and celebrate the life of Leanne Kozak, one of our beloved teachers. The event was a beautiful tribute to Leanne’s life and to her many contributions to our school.
Leanne’s sudden and aggressive illness took us all by surprise. We have all questioned how someone so young and so vibrant and so beautiful could become so sick so quickly. Just six months ago Ms. Kozak was teaching physical education and coaching basketball. In the days and weeks leading up to her illness, none of us could have imagined that our young, vibrant teacher and friend was living in the twilight of her life.
Leanne loved her job at All Saints. She loved being in community with all of us. In looking through some of my files, I found this piece of writing:
It is such a joy to be able to live out my dream every day. There is no better way to start off my morning than hearing, “Good morning, Ms. Kozak!” from an All Saints student. There are so many reasons why I am proud to work at All Saints. From the dedicated teachers and staff to the students and families who are so involved with the school, the ASEDS community has come to feel like a second family to me.”
While we may no longer have Leanne’s physical presence with us, her radiant light will never be fully extinguished. They live on in so many ways through the people she touched, through the people she loved, and through the lives she changed.
What follows is a story Ms. Kozak wrote to share in spirituality assembly last spring when we were exploring the theme of stewardship and service.
The story is called “I Can Make a Difference.”
As I thought about our affirmation, “I can make a difference,” great historical figures came to mind: Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Ghandi. As you can see, I tend to think of grand “differences” - people who have made huge impacts on the world. But the more I continued to think about the affirmation, the more I realized that we are all “making a difference” in someway, even if it is on a much smaller scale.
I’d like to tell you all about a significant time in my life when I truly felt that I had made a difference in someone else’s life. I had just graduated from college and decided to take a job at The Huntington Learning Center in my hometown. At the time, I was the youngest tutor working there. I was consistently working with young children from Kindergarten to Grade 3. So when my supervisor approached me one day with a new job tutoring a 53-year-old man, I was sure there had to be a mistake. To my surprise, there was no mistake. I was being asked to teach a grown man to read. I have always had trouble saying no to things, especially if it meant helping someone else. But the idea of tutoring a grown man made me very uncomfortable. How would he take a girl less than half his age seriously? There was simply no way this arrangement would work. I expressed my concern with my supervisor who reassured me that I was the right person for this assignment. I remember feeling flattered that she thought highly of my tutoring skills, but very nervous to take this on. Nevertheless, I knew it was the right thing to do.
During our first session together, Larry and I spent most of the time getting to know one another. Larry was a happily married limousine driver on Long Island. It was his goal to become a specific kind of truck driver for a company he wished to work for. The problem with this was that in addition to a driving test, Larry needed to pass a written exam to be considered for the position. We talked about why Larry had never learned to read. He lost both of his parents at a very young age and his grandmother was really the person who raised him. He told me that he always hated school as a child. He longed to learn, but he felt that he couldn’t relate to the other children and had a difficult time fitting in. He remembered being tested for learning disabilities, but was not sure what results came out of the testing. Larry ended up dropping out of high school. When he met his wife, everything changed. He decided to turn his life around. Larry got a steady job and had a child (who by the way loves school).
After that first meeting, I felt much more comfortable working with him and he seemed to feel the same way. After about four months of one-on-one tutoring, Larry considered himself a reader. He passed his truck exam, interviewed for the job and got it! Larry is a man of few words, so on his last day at the Huntington Learning Center, it didn’t surprise me that he said a quick goodbye to me with a soft handshake. About a week later, however, I received a letter in the mail from Larry. In the letter he wrote about how thankful he was that he met me and was able to learn from me. He ended his letter with how inspired he was that I was able to make such a difference in his life despite our age difference, and how he would continue to tell his son about our time together to teach him that everyone can make a difference. And in case you were wondering, his letter was hand-written beautifully in grammatically correct English.
I hope my story inspires each of you to try and make a difference in someone else’s life. At All Saints, I already see this happening all around me - whether it’s the fourth graders pushing to “ban the bag”, or a teacher giving his or her free time to help a student. Big or small, life-changing or mood boosting, we can all make a difference.
The final words of Leanne’s story have been inscribed on a tile that will be placed on our alumni wall in the Parish Hall – a place where words of wisdom are left from every member of our graduating class for those who will come after them. “Big or small, life-changing or mood-boosting, we all can make a difference.” Ms. Kozak’s words of loving kindness are being added to the wall so that her memory will be preserved forever and her light will be extended to every student who enters our school from this day forward.