Sunday, August 26, 2012

My Friend, Jason

You may have noticed my absence here on my blog recently.  I have had a difficult couple of weeks, as I learned about the loss of one of my best friends, Jason Zimmerman, on August 11th.  He was best known online as Teachinfourth, but in real life I knew him as an amazing teacher to 5 of my kids, a talented photographer who graciously took pictures of my family each year while refusing to accept payment, a thoughtful and full-of-surprises weekend companion for Allen and I, and an unconditionally loving and concerned friend who made time to be a part of my life.  Maybe you've read some of his Moments With Joey posts.  Or maybe you've seen some of his phenomenal photography or read the words he could always lace together in such beautiful ways.  His absence from this world has had a profound effect on me as well as many others, and it is difficult to imagine life ever really being the same without him here.  

I tried to write something to honor my friend, but the words would not come.  However, when his sister asked me to speak at his memorial service this past Saturday, I knew I could not say no. 

Here is what I shared there:

This is my attempt at using words to honor the life of my friend, Jason.  I’m not sure how I can adequately cover so many years of a life well-lived into the short time I have to share my thoughts with you.  Honestly, there are no words to do this justice.  So bear with me as I try.

I love this poem that a friend of Jason’s shared with me:

The Measure of a Man

Not – “How did he die?”
But – “How did he live?”
Not – “What did he gain?”
But – “What did he give?”
These are the units to measure the worth
Of a man, as a man, regardless of birth.
Not – “What was his station?”
But – “Had he a heart?”
And – “How did he play his God-given part?”
Was he ever ready with a word of good cheer?
To bring back a smile, to banish a tear?
Not – “What was his church?”
Nor – “What was his creed?”
But – “Had he befriended those really in need?”
Not – “What did the sketch in the newspaper say?”
But – “How many were sorry when he passed away?”
These are the units to measure the worth
Of a man, as a man, regardless of birth.

I think Jason measures up pretty well.

Here’s what I know about Jason.  Jason was a lover of Dr. Pepper, Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, Peanut Butter M&Ms, Safeway M&M cookies, Maple Bars (especially from Linn’s Grocery Store in Hurricane), Bacon, and he loved Sundried Tomato and Basil Wheat Thins with a fiery passion.  He loved spending time with his friends at Zupas, Cafe Rio, Carrabbas, The Cheesecake Factory, even Chuck-o-Rama, but most especially Texas Roadhouse where he loved trying to get everyone to embarrass themselves by sitting on that crazy contraption they bring around.

He mastered the art of creating cakeballs and was the inventor of the always famous Chunk-a-Poo cookies.  He was a connoisseur of great music who knew the names of every song and artist in his vast collection.  He also loved to discover new bands and songs and share them with his friends.  

I do not know anyone who knew and loved the deserts of southern Utah as Jason did.  He always looked forward to the time he spent there and shared the hidden beauties of the desert with us through his photography.  And speaking of photography, his skills behind the camera were unmatched.  He had a way of knowing just how to capture the light and what angles to use to photograph the beauties of the world around him in such a way that you were drawn to visit the places in his pictures.  We treasure the family photos he has taken over the years.  We have always been amazed at his ability to capture the personalities of each family member so well.  It was almost as if he had a magic lens.

Jason always carried little notebooks with him, everywhere he went.  He would pull one out and write down ideas as they came to him.  This was a part of what made him such an awesome writer.  He could take his ideas and weave words together in a way that his writing created pictures in your mind.  And it wasn’t only like that with writing.  The things he said always seemed to come out just right, too – as if he’d been waiting for just the right moment to use that particular string of words.

I think it is safe to say that Jason is probably best known and most loved here in Provo as Mr. Z, the phenomenal superhero teacher.  He knew and loved every child in his classroom and would spend countless hours outside of school time to help them succeed.  One friend made this observation after visiting his class:

Jason handled the room the way a magician handles an audience. He treated his kids pretty much the way he treated us grownups, with that wry, limit-setting tongue of his—sometimes a little sharp, but only because he respects us enough to give us a straight-up answer.  But the thing that gave me the most insight into him was what I saw in the halls of that school as we came back in from recess. It was like the man was a magnet, walking through a hallway full of iron filings.  Kids would leap out of the student flow and attach themselves to him - throw their arms around him and bury their faces in his shirt. That, or throw words at him, like they had five seconds to get in a round of speed tennis.

And he always knew the perfect words to throw right back.

Mr. Z had a passion for reading and love for learning that he passed along to each of his students.  His favorite authors and books became the favorites of many of his students as well, especially after hearing him bring the books to life as he read them aloud to his classes.  He will always be remembered for the voices he would use as he read aloud, making stories so much more fascinating to those who had the pleasure of listening to them.  Some of his former students have mentioned that their favorite books to hear Jason read aloud were James and the Giant Peach, A Return to Christmas, Time for Andrew,  The Watsons Go To Birmingham, The Boys Start the War & The Girls Get Even.

One class especially loved a unique book that he read to them, called Take the Long Way Home.  When he had finished reading the story to them, he surprised them all by telling them that the book was one he had actually written himself. 

His students will always remember the super activities he planned for those who completed their assignments: from BBQs at the park with night games, trips to Comedy Sportz, to movie nights at the dollar theater with BYU ice cream for everyone afterward.  They will never forget playing Star Wars in the gym.  They will always remember the names that Jason gifted to certain students, ones that every kid secretly wished had been crowned upon them - Muffin, Muffin Top, Peanut Butter Cup, Cupcake, Mumbo and Jumbo, Chica Marica, Stinky, Unicorn, everyone's middle name was Aloicious, and anyone named Juan got to hear, "You're number Juan!" all year long.

It was always a special treat to have music time with Mr. Z.  He would bring out his guitar and teach his students the songs that would transport them back to his classroom whenever they heard them later in life.  Songs like Don't Stop, Sandwiches, 500 Miles, Sweet Home Alabama, Going to the Zoo, The Cat Came Back, Cat's in the Cradle, The Winter Song, No Brains, Autumn to May, Clean Up Your Room, Kiss the Girl (with students names inserted in just the right places), Foolish Frog, You Ain’t Going Nowhere,  Free to Be You and Me, Puff the Magic Dragon, If I Ran the World, and, more recently, he tortured his class with Baby by Justin Bieber.  

But Justin Bieber had nothing on Mr. Z.  That guy could get kids to do anything!  If he told kids to lick a rusty pipe, they would do it. (And they did!)  He had them begging for him to write a huge ‘Z’ on their foreheads – in block lettering – with a permanent marker – on the last day of Expedition Red Rock.

And, speaking of Expedition Red Rock, he enjoyed taking students from Sunset View Elementary on the Expedition Red Rock trip along with his colleagues and friends to explore the beauties of Goblin Valley.  It was always a bonus for the kids in his class who attended each year  and got to take an exclusive hike to the (whispered:) white mountains.

His classroom was full of unexpected surprises.  There was Stanley the Stoplight, Trips to Australia, his class newspaper: 'In Z-News', class T-shirts to wear on field trips, Calvin and Hobbes all over the place, the Downtime Machine, earning Bonus Bucks to spend at Market Day, Song Lyric studies, his unique hall passes (there really were rocks in that basketball, right? Not dead puppies?), and if you were really lucky you got to meet Wolffie.

For a long time Mr. Z had substitute teachers who would visit throughout the day on Halloween.  There was SirYesSir, Professor Snape, Obi-Wan, a pirate captain and even a Wal-mart greeter with multiple personalities named Earl.  For a few years his mysterious twin brother, Jessie, would show up to substitute as well.  The funny thing was, Jessie looked exactly identical to Jason in every way – but their personalities were quite a bit different.    

Mr. Z always took the time to unify his classes every year by playing team-building games and activities with them during class time and recess.  The other kids on the playground always looked on with envy as Jason’s class sang and did the actions to Czechoslovakia (Boom-Sha-Boom), or led each other blindfolded all over the playground. 

Jason always had a way of bringing people together.  Whether it was in his classroom, in his home, through his blog, or at some sort of gathering, he just had a knack for connecting people.  By the end of each school year, the students in Mr. Z’s classes were more like a close-knit group of friends rather than a room full of students.  

And Jason was not an easy teacher.  He believed in pushing his students to become their best.  Above his classroom door was a sign that read, "Through this door walk the greatest kids on earth".  And he really believed that.  He saw potential in each of them.  He didn't only teach his kids about math and language, he taught them life lessons.  How to treat others. The importance of being a good friend and working as a team.  He taught the importance of being kind and having a sense of humor.  He taught them to love who they were and that he loved who they were and the importance of always doing your best and working hard.

Mr. Z loved to challenge his students to reach the Foot Hall of Fame or even the Tall of Fame, as well as earning the Soaring Dragon or Ascending Aviator awards.  His end-of-year class programs always included a video presentation which reviewed the adventures they had enjoyed all year, but the best part was when he took the time to call each student forward and talk to the group about the special qualities and gifts he recognized in each of them.    
Jason was an amazing teacher everywhere he went.  I have a friend who was in his singles ward a while back.  She told me that she would never go to Sunday School unless he was teaching – because he was such an engaging teacher.  She mentioned that you always knew when Jason was teaching, because the halls were unusually empty during Sunday School on his weeks to teach.

Above all else, Jason was one of the most service-minded people I have known.  His friends, family, students and colleagues were his life.  He was always busy thinking of ways he could serve others in small ways.  He was always concerned for others and doing little things to bring smiles.  There are so many examples of this.  I’m going to just share a few with you.  

One friend of Jason’s was in a musical a couple of years ago. On opening  night the families of performers could get in for free.  However, her family was out of town, so she asked Jason if he would come.  He was there like a proud father, with his camera, snapping pictures and clapping loudly. It was a small theater in the round, so she could hear his laugh and was a little embarrassed - but also pleased by his loud “woo woo!” every once in awhile. But that’s not all – he actually came another night during the run of the show as well, knowing that she would appreciate his support. 

One of Jason’s former students shared this experience with me: She says, my ward held a 50/20 (where you walk 50 miles in 20 hours) and I wanted to join. I remember making it past the half way point when every person in my group slowly dropped out. When I was the last one standing, I was moved up with the group just ahead of us and continued the trek with them. This group was too fast for my little legs and I eventually was convinced to stop. I went home and was disappointed. My mom had already bought ice cream and treats to celebrate, but I didn’t finish. After a lot of thought and some help I decided to go back and finish. My dad took me to the place where I stopped and together we moved forward. As I came down the last street I saw a crowd of people cheering for me. At the end of the line was Mr. Z. I remember his redish car parked in the street playing music as he stood there grinning. He had even set up a finish line for me to break through as I walked the final steps. I can still picture his smiling face as he congratulated me. This guy knew how to make a kid feel special. I don’t know whose idea it was to contact him, but I know that he cared enough to come out there and not only support me amongst the crowd, but to make his presence known. I love this man. He taught me so much in and outside of the classroom.

One year Jason came to my husband Allen and asked if he could help him build some awards he had dreamed up for all of the teachers at his school.  He felt bad that not everyone could win the Golden Apple each year because he could think of reasons that each teacher deserved it.  So he thought up his own award, had them built and gave them anonymously, always denying any involvement and never looking for any thanks. 

He would also never let us pay him for taking pictures of our family and I'm sure many others here could say the same.  Even when he did charge a fee to anyone, it was well below what someone with his talent could earn.  He just loved being able to do this for others, to share his gifts.  Jason would often pay for an extra cone of soft-serve ice cream at Macey's and ask the cashier to give it to someone who looked like they needed it.  His good friend Janelle shared this story with me:

Valentine’s Day is one of the loneliest days of the year for singles. One Valentine’s Day, not too long ago, I showed up to work at my school and I saw a vase filled with a beautiful bouquet of flowers sitting on the office counter. With a twinge of pity for myself, I wondered who they were for, then went on to my classroom. About 5 minutes later, the secretary brought the bouquet in to me! I was shocked. There was no note, and I spent the day deliberating who might have sent them. I suspected Jason right off because it was just the sort of thing he would do.  I eliminated a couple of other suspects, becoming more and more certain it was Jason. Then I called him on my way home from work to gage his reaction when I told him about this amazing bouquet of flowers I’d gotten anonymously. He pulled the innocent act, and never admitted openly to sending them, but I knew the truth.

These are just a few examples.  I am sure that each of you here can probably recall your own story where he did something to let you (or someone you know)  know that he was thinking of you and that you were important.  Something to make sure that you felt loved.

Jason had a way of making everyone feel special and loved.  He was easy to connect with and fun to be around.  My oldest son often asked if we could adopt Jason so that he could have a fun older brother. One of his former mission companions wrote the following, which illustrates well the kind of person Jason was:  

When I started a family of my own Jason quickly became the adopted uncle for my young boys. As they have grown up over the past several years they too have formed an amazing bond of love and friendship with Jason that will never be forgotten.  We were so blessed to have had the privilege of having Jason in our home on so many occasions that created so many wonderful memories that will always be cherished. These visits were always highly anticipated by our boys. They would be bouncing off the walls with excitement and yet those were the nights that they actually wanted to go to bed, they couldn’t wait. Because this meant that Jason would be telling a bedtime story. He would create these magical lands of mashed potato mountains and let the boys interact and help the story take twists and turns as they decided what would happen next. These stories started when my oldest son Tanner was just a small child. They have continued over the years as an ever evolving story that never ended. It just kept going the next time Jason would come for a visit. Now at 13, when most young men are outgrowing bedtime stories, he still looked forward to these stories from Jason. They were so special to them and will be greatly missed.

There are so many things we are going to miss. We will miss Christmas in September.  We will miss Hocus Pocus Night.  We will miss watching movies in his underground cinema.  We will miss his smile.  We will miss his humor and his quick wit.  We will miss his unconditional love.  We will miss our friend, our teacher, our brother.  

But our lives will always be “more better” for having known him.

 I found a quote that I loved, and I would like to share it with you.  It reads:

"Don't be dismayed by good-byes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends." ---Richard Bach

I know that there is life beyond this mortal life, and I find comfort in knowing that someday we will see Jason again.  I hope you can find comfort in knowing this, too.

 photo found here

If you would like to read the words that others have written in tribute to our friend Jason, there is something new being posted every day over at Four Perspectives


Mr. Hughes said...

That was amazing. I am so glad you finally found your words.... I am still looking.

cari said...

Gerb, that was perfect. :) Thank You.

Mindy said...

Your words were as powerful the second time, perhaps even more so...
Thank you for sharing it again...

Petersons Blog Spot said...

A very nice tribute. This is so sad and I didn't even know him. I only got a little glimpse.

Kristin said...

So sorry for your loss Gerb. He sounds like an AMAZING person and teacher. Sounds like he touched a lot of people in his life.

Annette said...

Wow! I didn't know him but after reading what you wrote I sure wish I did! What an amazing man....

Just SO said...

Thank you for sharing this. I so wanted to be there but was unable to because I already had something going on at that exact time.

What a beautiful tribute. I never got to meet Jason in person but his we exchanged a few emails and Christmas cards. I was looking forward to Christmas in September this year hoping that I would be able to make it.

He was an amazing person. And the Richard Bach quotes is on of my favorites. It is perfect.

Susie-Q said...

I am so sorry to hear about Jason. He was very kind to us when we were having a tough time. He will be missed

Maleen said...

Gerb, I'm so sorry.

I could always tell through your writing that he was a dear, special friend.

That was a beautiful tribute to his life. It's wonderful that there will be reunions someday.

Emily said...

Thank you, thank you thank you for posting this. I was really so distraught I couldn't make it out last minute and this was so beautiful and SO right. I had some wheat thins in my cupboard the other day and thought of him. Funny - those little things. Jason lived in those. Anyway I appreciate it. You did an amazing job. My mom was able to be at the memorial and was really touched by your remarks too.

Mom not Mum (Sandy) said...

I am so sorry. I have read your blog, I have read his blog on occassion and the four perspectives. From all of that and this post I know that he was an amazing person. This makes my heart and eyes sad.

Connie said...

Thank you for sharing this. I wanted to go to his memorial but I was in charge of our family reunion in North Ogden that day.
I have been heart sick ever since i heard of Jason's passing. He truly was all of what you said. I miss his posts, his photography, his insights, and his smile. I have two beautiful landscape pictures that he sent to me. I will always treasure them.

Danielle said...

Your talk was very good. I could tell you knew him well.
I'm working on a memory to email you on Four Perspectives.
It's been tough to do.
Thanks for sharing this.

Jason's Cousin, Danielle.

Corine said...


Linda said...

I was just reminiscing about Jason because I saw a blog entry from his father today. I found your blog as I searched the internet. Touching post about Jason. He truly did much good in the world. Mrs Seamons