This time, the community – our community – has lost a beloved teacher. Although I’d known Mike Tetlow for several years, it was a superficial acquaintance; he was my kids’ religion teacher at St. Paul’s in Jax Beach. I’d see him around the middle school and stop to say hello, to give him a fist bump – his version of a handshake, I suppose.
Quadriplegic, Mike lost the use of his athletic body in a car accident while on his honeymoon, several years ago. He spent the following years strapped into a power-driven wheelchair, and resumed the teaching career he’d started as an able-bodied younger man.
Word of his unexpected death Sunday spread across cellular networks and Facebook faster than parents could take their children aside, and do the telling, properly. But such is the social community of today, and I’m as big a part of it as anyone. I was able to get to my daughter just before her cell phone began to bleat with text messages from friends: ‘OMG, Mr. T died, for real’ *bleep* ‘Mr. Tetlow died I just saw him in Mass last night’ *bleep* I was the one who told her that her religion teacher, the man who reviewed Monday’s scheduled test with her class on Friday, had gone to sleep on Saturday night, and woke up in Heaven on Sunday morning. His was a blessedly peaceful passing, and I cheered for that, while choking back tears for this gentle guy whose masculinity was not diminished by his disability.
Others knew Mike Tetlow as a baseball player, a coach, and a teacher of history, social science, and religion at Catholic schools in Jacksonville. Our family knew him only during his life in the chair, teaching Catholicism as a course as tough as any other. He told us, “I want these kids to know their Bible as well as the Protestants, to understand the Biblical basis of their Catholic faith!” And so he taught his classes with both an intellectual and spiritual focus. He held help sessions after school before each test: he was a kindly reviewer of the test material; no student could claim not to know what was coming. And he made it fun: yes, he was generous with the candy, and why not? He gave candy when a kid would get the right answer during a help session, and, I’m told, sometimes in class; and always, when the test review was finished everyone there got a piece. His help sessions were always popular with students at St. Paul’s.
Mike was in and out of the hospital frequently, battling assaults to his physical body in one form or another for many years. Last year, he missed several months of teaching, but was finally welcomed back for the spring quarter. He seemed to fight for life, and his demeanor was always cheerful, but I guess I had to have known that his life expectancy could not have been great.
I love social media for many reasons, and when someone dies, it’s good to have a space to share memories, photos, anecdotes, tears, and sometimes, despair. It links hundreds of people in an instant who can support one another, and it’s helped me to understand more about Mike Tetlow than I had ever known. Someone posted an old photo of Mike as a softball coach; I had never seen him as an able-bodied guy. To consider how a person would have to adjust to a physically constrained life is overwhelming, and we know it was hard for him, too. But in the end, he told me – and others, I’m sure – that he was at peace with it. His teaching career remained vigorous and he never balked at speaking the truth about love, life, and human relationships, to his students. I was glad to know my kids – a son, and a daughter – had Mike Tetlow as a male teacher, a role model. He spoke with the boys during their ‘love and life’ curriculum and was firm about impulse control, respecting themselves and others, and keeping the Holy Spirit within their budding male-female relationships. He gave the girls some practical advice as to how to resist a guy’s physical advances! As a parent, I’m happy to hear this. He wanted our kids to make the choices that would not harm them, and would draw them closer to God. He encouraged conversation, and sharing of music; he’d sometimes give students extra credit if they shared a song that honored God in some way. It didn’t have to be a church hymn; in fact, one of his current favorites was ‘Fix You’ by Coldplay. He often played this version in his class this year. Read the words as you listen to the song (and ignore the misspelling, as Mike advised his students, too) …you’ll hear what Mike heard. I believe it.
I ran into Mike and his sister two years ago on Thanksgiving Day at the festivities on the street in front of Pete’s Bar. Although he was no fan of drunken foolery often seen at open parties, he enjoyed the afternoon outside…Thanksgiving at Pete’s is a beaches tradition, and has grown to become a block party over the years. But the weather was lovely and the sun shone brightly; it was our first time at Pete’s on Thanksgiving, and we chatted about it for a bit. I snapped a photo of him and his sister, and published it on in a post about Thanksgiving at Pete’s. I later gave him a copy of the picture, so I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my sharing it here.
Mike Tetlow was pro-life. He believed that life begins at conception and ends at natural death. He certainly embodied the dignity of life, the way he lived and worked during his latter years. He was an iconic figure around the school. It’s tough to realize we won’t see him anymore – until we meet again. That’s what he truly believed, and how he lived. He influenced so many: his current students, and hundreds of alumni over the years. Reading the stories and memories being posted on his Facebook page flesh out so many aspects of Mike Tetlow that I simply didn’t know. His teaching colleagues have scores of memories of Mike that go back for years. Really, the whole community will miss him. The Angie’s Subs sign, which always seems to have its finger on the pulse of the beaches and/or the culture, paid tribute to Mike this week.
Beach Teens 4 Life is a pro-life youth group that Mike supported. They’ve created wristbands in his honor that they’ll distribute at his viewing, from 6:30-8:00pm on Thursday, and before his Mass of Christian Burial on Friday at 11:00am.
I’ve used social media for many years and many reasons, from personal amusement to legitimate social networking. And twice now, I’ve watched, and participated in social media as a group reacting to the sudden death of a precious person. Mike Tetlow has quite clearly made an indelible impression on the lives of so many. Not a Facebook user during his life, he has 728 members (at this writing) of his Facebook Memorial Page in just one day’s time. Colleagues, students, and friends are posting wonderful memories that give the rest of us a more complete understanding of the life of Mr. Tetlow. What would he have to say about that?
When our family suddenly lost A Beautiful Boy we ran into Mr. Tetlow as we were making frantic preparations to leave town for his funeral, and shared our sorrow with him. The Beautiful Boy’s personal Facebook account remains open, and his friends are still posting to him, several times a week, fifteen months later. He was a life force among his friends in life, and is quite clearly influencing them for the good from Heaven, today. The social media can help keep our relationship with them feeling tangible, even after their physical deaths take them from this earth.
As one of Mr. Tetlow’s students posted, a few days ago, “…now I have an intercessor in Heaven.”
We believers accept that eternal life is a mystery, but if we take the time to look and listen – the Bible, the Mass, in online communities, in groups for fellowship with, and service to others – the evidence we yearn for is there. I see it on A Beautiful Boy’s Facebook Wall still, week after week. Let’s keep Mr. Tetlow’s Page going, too.
I believe that he will be honored to be your intercessor to the Lord. Go ahead and ask him.