Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Legacy of Life and Love

I met my match on the first day of school two years ago. “Lance” immediately stood out from his clean, polished classmates posing for their first day of kindergarten pictures. He tussled with his mom at the door, who left him fuming outside the door in angry tears. His jeans were ragged, and he had arrived with no school supplies or backpack.

Approaching him, I noticed several nasty scratches on his face and arms. “What happened?” I inquired, gently tracing a lighter one on his arm.

“Me and my brother were castrating cats...stupid cats!” His answer astounded me! Thus began an unpredictable and often volatile relationship with my new kindergarten student.

I learned that Lance’s father was soon due to be released from jail and that his short life had been unstable, to say the least. I brought school supplies and a new backpack for Lance the following day. At the end of that day, as he waited to be picked up after school, Lance went after some older students, wildly clobbering them with his backpack. The rampage continued as I implored him to stop, so I finally grabbed him from behind, attempting to remove him from the situation. As I dragged him, screaming, through the door he stomped on my foot, breaking two of my toes.

Rather than expel Lance, my principal and I brainstormed about how best to win the heart of an angry five year old. Not many days later, after yet another run-in with his peers, Lance climbed voluntarily into my lap and pulled my arms around him. It was a start, but his struggles were far from over. He regularly earned time-outs during recess. On one such occasion he sat on the ground hugging his knees while rocking back and forth and singing, “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord, Open the eyes of my heart...” Eyes closed, he repeated over and over again the opening phrases of the song we often sang as a class. The words seemed to well up from the very depths of his little wounded soul.

The child was intense. He sang the loudest, ran the fastest, and was first to conquer the monkey bars. Learning didn’t come easy. It totally frustrated him, and he demanded my undivided attention. In a classroom of eighteen students that was, of course, impossible.

Enter Tyler!

My principal had already sent several reinforcements my way, but Lance proved too much for some of them. When yet another student was assigned to help out twice a week I didn’t get my hopes up. But Tyler was an immediate hit with the class, and especially with Lance. Unruffled by Lance’s outbursts, Tyler’s presence had a calming effect, and yet he seemed embarrassed when I repeatedly told him how influential he had become. He smiled his big easy smile and blushed a little, too, when the kindergartners shouted hello across the parking lot or high-fived him as he passed in the hallway. Soon Tyler began showing up every day to help out instead of sticking to his assigned two afternoons a week. Still, I doubt that he fully understood how critical his role was, particularly in the life of a little boy who desperately needed a positive male influence.

Lance transferred to another school the following year, and Tyler went on to participate in other activities and service projects. He was never stingy with his smile, however, and in my eyes he stood a head taller than many of the other high school students. I always thought there was something very special about him.

Two weeks ago today, on February 10th, Tyler’s life here ended abruptly when his car ran under the back of a school bus on his way to school. Thankfully, no one else was injured. Our small Christian school, however, was rocked to the core; gripped with grief.

It was not until Tyler’s death that I learned how he came to attend our school. It seems that middle school had proven extremely painful, and his parents sent him to our school as a last-ditch effort to help him discover a purpose for his life. He was pretty jaded when he started as a freshman, and often “flew off the handle.” The class he became a part of has never been known for its
cohesiveness, and therefore wouldn’t have been our first choice for a young man healing from emotional wounds. Interestingly enough, he became the “glue” that brought the class together. That seems especially true now, through his death. A love and appreciation for Tyler is something the entire class shared.

The sight of all twelve remaining senior boys (and one special junior friend) serving as Tyler’s pall bearers will stay with me for a long time. It was a very touching and emotional scene as they carried his casket up the middle aisle of our auditorium, and then placed it in front of the set Tyler had recently built for an upcoming play.

Over the past four years Tyler had accepted Christ and grown confident in his faith and in the person God made him to be. He had also become involved in the lives of many younger students. Near the beginning of this current school year he had “adopted” the sixth grade class, and spent one study hall with them nearly every day. The junior high students loved and respected him, too, and of course the second graders still adored him.

In retrospect, so many events leading up to and following Tyler’s death seemed to be orchestrated by a loving Heavenly father. Another family on their way to school witnessed the accident, recognized the car as Tyler’s, and helped to identify him. My son Tristan, who was Tyler’s youth pastor, arrived at the accident scene very early on, and was able to comfort Tyler’s mother and accompany her to the hospital. Since the family didn’t have a church connection and Tyler had spoken affectionately of Tristan, he was asked to do the funeral service. The prayers of many were evident as Tristan, struggling with his own emotions, delivered a very personal message of comfort and hope to the more than 500 people in attendance. The gospel was clearly presented, and a few of Tyler’s classmates spoke about Tyler’s positive influence in their own lives. Tyler’s family was overwhelmed and overjoyed by the love showered upon them by people they barely knew. New relationships were formed.

Almost immediately after Tyler’s death many regrets were expressed. One of Tyler’s friends admitted to having “keyed” his car, and declared he was going to permanently inscribe Tyler’s initials into his own car. A female classmate expressed sorrow over regarding Tyler with annoyance. Even I regretted that I had only spoken with Tyler in passing over the past two years since he helped out in my classroom. It was especially fitting, then, that the most poignant words, and the ones that ended Tyler’s service were written by Tyler, himself in his last note on Faceboook:

“so i've been thinking about this for quite a while now and i've been looking for the perfect verse to go along with it but i couldn't seem to find it until one day in leadership we went over it. we all make mistakes, each and everyone of us, but sometimes its hard for us to forgive people who have made a mistake to us or to a close friend or something. in ephesians 4:32 it says, "Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you." we all make mistakes, and we should all be forgiven just like God has forgiven us for all of our sins and falling short of the glory of God. sometimes i dont want to forgive people but then i realize that if it was me i would want to be forgiven. just a little thought thats been on my mind for a while now.”
--by Tyler Toll

That will be Tyler’s legacy –learned the hard way through his own struggles, but learned, and demonstrated to a class of five year olds(one with whom he must have especially identified),then multiplied and magnified to touch nearly every person with whom he came into contact over the past four years.

Dear God,
Thank you for sending Tyler to us. Thank you for both the lessons he learned and those that he taught us. Thank you for his enthusiasm and zest for life, and most of all his love for others. We will never understand why he had to leave us so soon, but help us to honor his life by choosing to follow You with the same enthusiasm, love, and forgiveness. Please wrap your arms around his parents, his brother and sister, and all the others who loved him dearly and miss him terribly.. May his death draw each of us into closer fellowship with You, Lord Jesus, in whose name we pray, Amen.”


  1. What a blessing to read this today. Kind of hard to see through the tears but what a mighty God we serve! One who DOES work all things for the good. Thank you for sharing this with us!

  2. Thank you, Sharlyn, for sharing Tyler's story today. Praise God for this young man's testimony. May God send comfort to those who were blessed to know Tyler - as they grieve over him in the days to come.

  3. Thanks, Shari, for putting this in print. There's always more going on than the obvious! God is always up to something bigger than we can see and so often it's about relationships. Praise God for Tyler's presence at CV and all that he brought to all of us who knew him. I only knew him through subbing but he is one you don't forget. He had a big heart and as we all know, a contagious smile. Keep writing, Shari. What a blessing. --jkw

  4. Thank you for this beautiful tribute. I wish I could have known Tyler, but I'm grateful for the chance to hear from his story a reminder that the Lord can redeem troubled teens and make a huge difference in and through them.

  5. Oh, Sharlyn. What a blessed story that brought tears to my eyes. A wonderful, wonderful tribute.

  6. This is an absolutely beautiful story. I can't really say anything else because I started crying right after the accident.

    Isn't it just like God that even in Tyler's death, Tyler's life will minister to so many.

  7. Thanks for this- it is so good to share the memories and see Tyler's life from many different perspectives. My mother has told me about your writing lately, and I have to agree that it is very enjoyable to read =) Thanks again for sharing!
    ~Rachel Pratt

  8. Thank you so much for sharing. I was just thinking about forgiveness tonight, then I read your story! thanks again!


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