A Light Shines in Charlottesville: an Ode to Joe

Let me tell you about one of my favorite humans, Joe Beard.

I’m unfortunately one of those teachers who has difficulty with work/life balance.  When other more healthy teachers jet off to gyms, happy hour plans, or children, I’m usually in my slippers slippin’ around my classroom hoping to make enough noise to keep the nocturnal mice away.  I’ve gotten much, much better than my first few years when I was known to leave school at the same time some people were leaving bars.  Once, a former division head described me as someone who “burns a candle at both ends.”  

Even though I’ve upped my social life and have reluctantly allowed some of my extracurricular school activities to be pried from my stone cold fists, I still have my occasional late nights.  And they aren’t awful thanks to the night security guard Joe Beard.

You see, after my 8th period students shuffle or sashay out of my classroom, Joe will usually pop his head in to see how my day was and if I was staying late.  If I was staying late, Joe would find ways to brighten my evening through frequent check ins, grabbing a seat in one of my big blue chairs, and telling jokes or making fun of me (with love of course).  He’d keep me company while I graded quizzes or made lesson plans.

Sometimes Joe doesn’t catch me before I leave my classroom to do my usual 15-25 minute “hallway roam,” where I aimlessly walk the hallways talking to kids or waving at teacher friends in their classrooms.  I’m a bit like one of those puppies who spins around and around before she finally feels comfortable and settles down.  On those days, I’d often find Joe outside my classroom upon my return scolding me for not locking my door and having students sneak in my room to hang out.  He was always worried about my valuables getting stolen, and he was always concerned with my safety and happiness.  He did the same for the students who sought respite in my classroom.

If we are lucky, we will all have a Joe in our lives, a person who goes out of his or her way to be a constant flicker of light on not just our thunderstorm days, but also on those days where the added sunshine makes our beautiful days even more technicolor.  And sometimes, if you are like me, you’ll take that light for granted, and you won’t realize how much energy you were getting from it until something snuffs out the light.

Joe suddenly passed away peacefully in his sleep on July 3rd, 2017.  I found out from a former student, and the clouds rolled in and scrubbed the sheen from my summer.  During his funeral, I sat next to one of my former students, and as life amateurs, neither of us had tissues.  After a while, we gave up trying to stop our mascara from making black diamond ski trails down our cheeks until finally someone rescued us with some toilet paper.  I spent the rest of the summer dreading returning to school as I’ve not felt ready to feel the emptiness of Joe’s absence.


Pictures of Joe from the cover of his memorial program.

I felt cloudy until this weekend when I prepared for students to start school on Tuesday. I started reflecting on the fact that Joe had given me an incredible gift.  And so, in his honor this year, my mantra will be to be more like Joe.  Instead of being that quasi-selfish “burning the candle at both ends” person, I want to be the light that brightens other people’s days.  I’d like to think that Joe would love that, that I’m honoring him in that way by checking on people after school, making them laugh, and reminding them each and every day that they are important, that they matter. For that is what Joe gave to me.  Because of him, I’ve never felt alone in a world that can be lonely.

So in this turbulent time where the heat of hate is radiating from marches in Charlottesville and around the country, I will make sure that love blazes brighter.  In this way, I’ll make sure that Joseph Kenneth Beard will shine on.

I hope you will do the same in honor of the Joe in your life as well. In the thick of these whitewashed storms funneling in, we will all need the light in the darkness.

Let’s all buckle down and get our flashlights out, as our lights aren’t going anywhere.  We will radiate love, respect, and empathy. Come what may, we must remember that Hope Dies Last.

To Joe.


Thanksgiving on Cuba Street

A Gratitude Journal

My carpool picks me up at 7:10 a.m. each morning at the top of Cuba Street.  If I can convince myself to crawl out of my warm bed and into the frigid air of my apartment before six a.m., I can make the 6:30 a.m. bus that will take me to the bottom of Cuba Street, and then it’s just a quick 10-minute jaunt to the top.  If I wake up after 6 a.m., I will miss the bus, and then I must run/jog/shuffle/skip the two miles to my meeting point. (School starts at 9 a.m. here, but I have a hike to get to my placement).

Even though I get exercise if I don’t catch the bus, I love making it because I get to stop for coffee.  Now 98% of coffee shops open after 7 a.m., which means I’m mostly out of luck because there is a coffee shop desert around my carpool pick up point.  However, Roberto at Palomino coffee on Cuba Street opens up just a little bit early so that I can get my coffee and still make it to my pick up point on time.  He’s pretty much the greatest man alive, and I look forward to stopping there on the mornings that I can.

Jessie with free cookie

My day is so much better because I got a free cookie. Thanks Roberto!

Today, I missed the bus by 47 seconds.  I had a loooong day yesterday that didn’t get me home until 10:45 p.m., and I knew I would be just as late tonight.  Even though it was 7:08 and I was huffing and sweating, I still decided to stop in to get a cup of coffee from Roberto. He inquired after my tardiness, and I gave him a brief synopsis of my past and future 24 hours, stressing that I really needed a cup of his coffee.  As he handed me my dreamboat-in-a-cup Flat White, he added a decadent chocolate cookie to the top of my coffee cup before handing it to me.  “For you,” he said in his Cuban accent, “to help with your day.”

It’s a few hours later, and I feel like I wish I could unplug after my iPad got completely wiped, and I lost– thankfully not all–of my research over the last month (I know, cue lecture about backing up files).  As I was about to sob into the D, O, and H keys on my keyboard, I noticed the cookie sticking out of my backpack.  It made me stop and remember that even though this is a tough loss, I am able to reflect, rethink, and rewrite.  Roberto’s gesture was a reminder to me that there is heartbreakingly beautiful kindness in the world. And for that I am grateful.

Note of gratitude

Someone at school put my name in the gratitude/commandments drawing, and I won! Thank you random stranger, now I get to draw an awesome prize on Monday!


It is super cool being “from the future,” as I am 18 hours ahead of Chicago, but it makes communication difficult.  There is a small window of time right before I go to bed or right when I wake up that I can catch people in the States to talk to them.  I can’t talk during my day because I have to have wifi to Skype or Facetime, and I don’t get home from school in time to talk to people before they tuck in for the night.  So during the weekdays, I feel pretty isolated from my friends and family in the U.S., and I suck every last bit of comfort from the imessages and Whatsapp texts I get during the day.  It’s weird to think that most of my communication with home is through short conversations sprinkled throughout my cupcakes of days.

You can imagine, therefore, how meaningful mail has been to me.  I haven’t given out my mailing address to anyone but my parents, and they sent me a wonderful welcome care package the first week I arrived.  I realized quickly that one has to sell one’s car just to be able to pay to ship a package in New Zealand, so I didn’t send on my mailing address to anyone else.

Package from Joy

The AMAZING package from Joy.

But somehow, mail has found a way.  Our close (and oldest) family friends Kate and Michael sent me a lovely card.  And the biggest hug to a soul is that my lovely friend and fellow book club member Joy sent THE most incredible care package ever.   I had written a blog post about how miserably cold I’d been in Wellington, and she secretly Facebook messaged my mom asking for my address.  She sent me a giant package that has kept me literally and figuratively warm for two weeks now: a blanket, gloves, hand warmers, Nutella, fancy chocolate, and stuff for Halloween and Thanksgiving–the two holidays I will miss while I’m here.  I would win a Pulitzer if I was able to able to adequately express how grateful I feel.  I guess it makes sense that Joy would bring me so much joy.  (PS: Joy, check your mailbox in 6-8 days!)

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That Time I Didn’t Turn Right

Disclaimer: this is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

I’ve been in New Zealand exactly a week.  In the spirit of a “throw back Thursday,” I thought I’d go back and share with you the gritty details of my trip over. At first I wasn’t sure if I wanted to publish this diary, but I want to document and share with you all the ways in which this trip initially felt impossible before it turned amazing. In fact, if it wasn’t for some of the events in the story, I wouldn’t be as happy in New Zealand as I am today.

Jessica smiles at party

My going away party the night before I left. Theme: All American BBQ
Mood: calm before the storm.

8:00 a.m. Monday, August 18th

My mom wakes me up in my favorite way, with a steaming cup of dark roast coffee diluted with Crème Brulee coffee creamer. I know she is making this morning extra special for me, as I can smell homemade popovers baking in the oven—a favorite breakfast pastry that takes getting up early to give it the nurturing time it needs. My dad is busy trying to help me fix my old Mac computer. I look with admiration at parents that are trying so hard to make this transition and final hours in the US special and stress-free for me.

12:37 p.m.

My mom and I high five each other as we’ve both finished my packing. I had packed before I left Chicago, but later realized I’d have to repack because my bags were so overweight.

Two weeks before departure I’d ascertained that books are considered a good gift to give New Zealanders because they are so expensive to buy (someone told me a Lonely Planet to NZ was $50!). I also found out through discussing with several people that certain cosmetic and toiletries are very expensive, and it may also be difficult to find the specific brands that I need because I’m a curly girlie. Therefore, I also had a liter of my favorite conditioner, two bottles of moose, and other products to make these follicles of frizz magically turn into ringlets.

So yes, my bags were drastically overweight. My mom and I would transfer some stuff to the other bag and then back again. Feeling defeated, I called United, and they said that it is $100 for an extra bag anyway and an additional $100 for luggage over 50 pounds. After going to the post office, I discovered it would already be $70 to ship the excess books, so weighing my options (ha!), I decided just to make one bag heavy and pay the fine.

3:30 p.m.

We leave for the airport. I feel surprisingly calm, and I relax in the sunshine streaming through the car windows.

4:45 p.m.

We arrive at the airport and all calmness melts away.  I had thought the extra bag would be $200 total. The actual price comes out to $500. And although the United clerk is helpful, I still burst into tears. I was already emotional, and for some reason, the fact that I couldn’t take some simple gifts because of the cost breaks my heart. 

4:58 p.m.

I refocus. We discover that if I carry 27 pounds of books on my person the 8,000 miles, the total cost will drop to $300. Even though my parents graciously offer to ship them to me, I get a giant plastic recycling bag and plop them in along with my heavy messenger bag to make it “one” carry-on bag (thanks for the tip, United man!). I put on the heaviest jacket, dawn knee-high compression socks, and lace up my heavy hiking boots to help get rid of some of the weight.

I give my lovely parents a tearful goodbye and walk through security with a backpack on my shoulders, and the giant plastic bag with its visible contents in my arms.

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