Mr. Gene Westra started teaching at Holland Christian Middle School the year I started 6th grade. This was the year of the Tiananmen Square Massacre and, in my summer introduction to my new social studies teacher, Mr. Westra carried exciting perspectives and views given (if I remember correctly) he had recently returned from China. I have a peculiar and distinct memory - as all the memories of a young 6th grader are - of two superimposed images: One of a kindly (older) man standing in front of a crowed classroom and one of a single young man standing in front of a tank.
You need to be brave to teach sixth-graders. You also need to have a strong sense of humor and empathy. Mr. Westra carried both aplenty. Middle school remains the oddest of stages for human development. And, when your job requirement is to cover world history, religion, and sex education, you best have the toolkit and skills to navigate the fraught waters of irrational behaviors with a good deal of laughter.
I had many excellent teachers in my childhood. Mr. Westra stands out because he was something more. He was a mentor and an elder.
For instance, I recall swinging by his room at the end of the school day to ask about history. I was distracted. My mind was occupied by a particular tangent of hell. As was the custom of evangelical families in the late 80s, we subscribed to a “boys life” type magazine that copied most things secular except with a good deal of extra Christian messaging and themes.
This issue went all-in on hell. The exposition featured a potent mix of Dante’s inferno, D&D fantasy type motifs, and occasional Bible verses. I suspect their goal was “cool - but serious” - a perfectly logical approach when dealing with a younger audience, I suppose. Terror, but relief, and the hope that you get to be part of the ultimate in crowd.
Anyway. I carried a lot of confusion. “Weeping and gnashing of teeth!” What the actual (non-metaphorical) hell? And how did eternal damnation for finite sin measure up to any kind of justice?
Mr. Westra handled such confusion with love, empathy, and, most importantly, humility. There was always room to ask questions in my faith tradition. And wise folk to create the space for items.
I’ve reached the unfortunate age where some of my childhood mentors and elders are starting to pass away.
This is life. I find these moments to inspire a bit of quiet introspection. It’s good to grab and hold onto gratitude.
On The Blessings of Mentors and Elders
“Old places and old persons in their turn, when spirit dwells in them, have an intrinsic vitality of which youth is incapable, precisely, the balance and wisdom that come from long perspectives and broad foundations”
— George Santayana
Looking back, it’s impressive to see the rich web of a community committed to raising the next generation. Mostly these were folks grounded in the church or within the school. The church of my roots - 14th Street CRC - very intentionally focused on matching young folk with older. One of the many ways it created a larger family.
My “official” mentor matched with me was a very wonderful man named Jack. Jack was a provost at a liberal arts college and a professor of Greek. He also was my catechism teacher (I seemed to always be drawn to educators). Looking back, I find parts of the Heidelberg Catechism impressive with its theological reasoning. But as a 10th grader, I was bored out of my mind (so much so that I once asked Jack and his co-teacher, with all the plumb of an arrogant teen, if “boredom was a sin?”). Subject material aside, Jack and I would meet up for coffee on Saturday mornings and talk life, travel, philosophy, faith, and academics. He was a gentle sounding board for my thoughts, muting directions that contradicted wisdom and adding crescendos to the pathways that led to prudence.
In my freshman year, the church decided to hire a youth director. Enter Raeanne Walters. She and her husband were only a few years older than my class. Still, they brought the fun and the intentional love for a (slightly) younger community. Nearly thirty years later, my wife and I still call her and her husband to figure out how best to parent our children. In such moments, I can’t help but think the English language is lacking the singular word for “mentor, elder, friend, and family.” There’s a deep power in moments of mentorship, one that genuinely gets passed on from one generation to another.
What about my own children?
I’m writing this post while staring through the lens of a pandemic, and it’s shading my understanding. But in general, my kids encounter mentors through their sports, youth group activities, and (honestly) family. Since day one of our adoptions, we’ve been involved with our local YMCA, and a small group of loving, supportive coaches and mentors have poured energy into my three children (a special shoutout of gratitude to Monarch Coaches Jasmine and Kristen).
To me, this feels different. But perhaps that’s because my kids are still young, and the locus of experience is theirs, not mine.
What about me? Am I stepping up?
This is a challenging question for me to answer - especially in the context of time. I’ve mentored former students, developed guiding relationships with foreign exchange students and gone to many breakfasts with mentees. Some of the more significant moments of bonding come with my nephews. I married into a family where family is tight and bonded (and I love it). My brother-in-law and sister-in-law literally adopted my kids’ siblings. We grow, parent, and mentor together.
But there is certainly room to grow here.
My family frequently visits Holland during the Easter holiday. Naturally, we attend the Easter service at 14th Street CRC. As an established tradition, the service concludes with an invitation towards all to join the choir in singing Handel’s Hallelujah. The congregation becomes rowdy with noise as we grab choir books, meander up to the front of the church, and squish our way into the choir (trying, as best as you can, to find your proper section).
Mr. Westra carried a beautiful voice and loved singing in the choir. One Easter, I found myself crowded up against his side and sharing a sheet of music. I gave him a hug. My mentor and my teacher. And, with a big smile, joined him in one of the most joyous Christian hymns of all time.
Gene Westra died back in September. Many of us will miss him. But I am so blessed to have known him.
I’m going to end this post with words of 14th Street’s pastor. It feels appropriate.
Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Gene. Acknowledge, we humbly pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.
Saints in light.