Remembering Leslie Lamar Parker, my former student

To spotlight some of the thousands of lives lost to COVID-19, CBS This Morning has a segment called ‘Lives to Remember’. This morning, the show featured my former student, Leslie Lamar Parker, who succumbed to COVID-19 complications in May. (Leslie’s sister Shika videoed the segment, and it can be seen on her Facebook page.) I’ve been in touch with Leslie’s dear wife Whitney since Leslie’s passing, and she asked me to write this in Leslie’s memory. This is posted with her permission.

Thank you, Whitney, for asking me to do this. I’ll always be crazy about Leslie, and it was truly a pleasure to hang out with his memory. Wishing you and your lovely family peace and strength.

NOTE: I am posting this on my blog to honor the memory of this young man I am so very fond of, and to mark for myself just how, when I got mired in all the inconveniences of our current situation (e.g., providing distance learning at work, mask-wearing, closed businesses, etc.), I may have taken my eye off COVID-19’s real ball. Leslie’s passing reminded me of what I should put first, and why. The dangers are severe, and very, very close.

To put it another way, any political positions you pull out of this are not my intent and are fully on you. This piece is about Leslie Lamar Parker, who I am so very glad I got to work with and know. I’ll never forget him.

From the first time he walked into my high school English classroom, he was just…well, big

Big in physical stature, sure (he was several inches taller than I, which few teenagers are), but more so in sheer presence. He entered the room slowly and easily, and his classmates clustered around him. They quieted themselves when he spoke, and they exploded with laughter over everything he said. 

I’d been teaching nearly ten years by that point, so it was certainly nothing new for me to see students clowning or showing off on the first day. Such students were just in hurries to establish their desired place in the class’s culture. It’s understandable, really. (And, full confession: aside from the rare students who ended up taking their class-clown roles too far, I ended up adoring the heck out of my day-one clowny kids.)  

The remarkably big young man here, though, didn’t seem to be working any role or positioning himself. He interacted sincerely with the classmates who were so obviously drawn to him, and he showed big appreciation for them in return. He made his classmates laugh not so he could get their adoration, but so he could laugh along with them.

Simply being himself, he was effortlessly big. And, like all big things, he had considerable gravity. 

Mere moments after that initial observation, I also learned of my impressive new student’s big courage, consideration, and class, all in a single interaction. 

When I was calling roll and got to his name, “Leslie Parker?”

He responded, “Here.” 

I made eye contact with him and thanked him as I do with all my students on the first days. Before I could get on to the next name, though, he added, “Hey Mr. Kalenze! My cousin had you for a teacher!”

“Oh yeah? Who was that, Leslie?”

His reply stopped me short. It was the name of a student who had been expelled from the school district a few years prior, stemming from an incident that had occurred in my classroom. My new, remarkably big and highly gravitational student, in other words, had a preconceived notion of me, and it wasn’t a good one. Great. Just great. 

I looked up from my roll sheet at Leslie—whose big eyes were locked on mine in a gaze I recognized as one of challenge (his eyes were certainly not laughing, as they had been just five minutes earlier)—and replied, “Really? Wow! Say hi to him for me, okay?” 

Before returning to the roll, though, I kept my eyes on his a bit longer and gave him a subtle nod. He gave a quick “up nod” with his chin in acknowledgement, then looked away.   

With that single exchange, Leslie discreetly let me know that I was on notice with him, but that he was giving me a chance. In kind, I discreetly let him know that I saw him and understood. Whatever feelings he might have had against me, he had a keen sense for how this moment was not the best one to work them out in—and I appreciated his awareness and respect beyond what I am able to express.

In all, Leslie Lamar Parker’s first-day impression on me was a profound one. I’ve never forgotten it. I can’t say any high schooler ever impressed me as much in their first class period with me as Leslie Parker did that day. He was just big like that.

* * *

Thanks to Leslie’s big openness and big grace, he quickly emerged as that section’s biggest asset. He fully engaged his big intellect, big wit, big heart, big curiosity, and big perspective to my class’s literature, discussions, and activities—and with all that gravity of his, he took many “satellite students” right with him. When the year wrapped, I was truly sad to see him leave.

Fortunately, however, Leslie and I stayed in touch after our time as teacher-student. In 2011, Leslie’s big consideration spurred him to reach out through a LinkedIn message that read, simply, “MR. BATMAN!” (NOTE: When he was in my class, he nicknamed me “Mr. Batman” because he thought I looked like Michael Keaton. He even left an absolutely perfect—and, of course, very big—Batman symbol in my yearbook in 2007, the year of his graduation. I never saw the resemblance, but I’ll always treasure the nickname.) As we messaged back and forth, he let me know that his first child had just been born, and that he’d recently taken an IT job at Howard University. When I asked how he’d ended up in D.C., he said he just “wanted to venture out since I went to school in Minnesota.” It was a joy to watch him making such big decisions and moves. I was thrilled for him.

From there, we messaged each other a few times a year to stay caught up. He updated me through his move back to Minnesota and through his work in the district where we first met. He asked process questions about the books I was writing. We talked about his own dreams of being published, and I passed along a few pieces of advice. We discussed role models and the example he was hoping to set for some relatives of his, and on and on. 

Our contacts weren’t weekly or even monthly, but I will always cherish my continuing relationship wih Leslie Parker. The big young man I knew years ago was growing into a just a big man, and he made time to check in with me as he did. To me, it will always feel like a big gift.

* * *

On 11 May 2020, Leslie Lamar Parker lost a two-week battle with Covid-19. He was 31 years old.

It’s hard to know even what to write after that sentence, probably because even now, more than two months out, I still can’t believe the words in that sentence are true.

I do know, however, how grateful I was to receive a few more words from Leslie a few weeks after his passing. These came from, who fulfilled Leslie’s long-time dream of being published when they ran an essay of his called “I won’t remember how unforgiving Covid-19 was to people like me. Instead, I’ll remember Sunday dinner” on 27 May. 

I won’t say much about the essay here, but I will offer that it gives a brief glance into the myriad bigness of Leslie’s spirit. Reading it, you should get senses of just how observant, funny, intelligent, gracious, gentle, strong, wise, and generous Lesle Parker was. It sure gave me a lift to experience all that one more time, and I know that it lifted others around the world as well: after sending the tweet below, I heard from people all over the world about how they were reading Leslie and reflecting because of his ideas. Better still, teachers in my social network were sharing Leslie’s ideas with their students. (Click image below to view original tweet and read replies.)llptweet

Thank you, Leslie, for coming into my classroom that day so many years ago, and just for being so darn big. Your gravity positively affected many, many people, and you will live in my heart and my thoughts forever.


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