I learned last week from Ed and Tina White that Caleb White's real hero was Michael the Archangel. I'm not sure why I didn't see that before. Everything about Caleb was about protecting others. I think that he was more Michael's shield than his sword.
Imagine how incredibly sad it is for a teacher to learn about the passing of a former student. Especially if that connection survived the separate-but-equal status of most middle-school, student-teacher relationships, eventually morphing over a decade into the level playing field of adulthood. Incredibly sad is the best way I can describe the sudden arbitrary and intense moments that seize me by the gut, radiate up my spine, and blur my vision before I even know that I'm intensely sad for Caleb's family, proud of Caleb, and in awe of him all at the same time.
I lay no sentimental claim to Caleb White, nor do I attribute his general awesomeness to any specific lesson I taught him as his headmaster from 2005 to 2007. With most of the male students I taught at Stone Table in Franklin, Tennessee, the healthiest relationships that I have today usually experienced an initial break in the relationship where the man-child drew a very deep line in the sand, daring me to cross it. That student-teacher divide gave way to mutual respect and friendship almost every time.
Strange enough, that was never the case with Caleb.
First of all, Caleb and I both are the middle-child of three. As a result, I knew that Caleb cared less about performance (the first-born curse) and even less about cuteness (the third-born curse). By gosh, Caleb was spontaneous and original (what I liked to call absurd. Hey, I'm the same way...) and most importantly of all, timing was important. And the timing was always now.
Second of all, Caleb wasn't aware of certain protocols. It wasn't that he didn't care (he didn't). It was that he didn't know, and then he didn't care about what he didn't know. So if Caleb derailed my Physical Science class because, say, the word uniformitarianism reminded him of something he recalled off Sponge Bob and he felt it absolutely important to say so and I objected, then that bright look on his face would give way to worry eyebrows and he would turn the discussion to how You say that you want us to interact, but you're the only one talking (which was true...) or You let the girls say things that have nothing to do with class (damn, that was also true...).
Third of all, Ed and Tina White's boys were different than quite a few of the boys at my school. My school lay within the boundary lines of Williamson County which boasted a delicate conflation of the quickly-fading-but-endearing-Southern-small-town-hospitality ethos and the evangelical-hipster-coffee-drinking-my-skinny-jeans-so-tight-that-it-hurts-my-balls-and-beanie-wearing demographic. And everything in between. Caleb White and his brothers were neither.
The Whites lived in a little "hollow" called Fernvale where they were completely cushioned by the beautiful scenery of Middle Tennessee: the woods, the hills, the streams, wildlife, few people. They lived in Davy Crockett's world. There, they were sheltered from Williamson County tensions and nuances of which church, which band, which brand, which neighborhood, decisions, decisions, decisions. Being oblivious made the boys stick out as a one-of-a-kind posse at our school. Can I get a witness?
I still can see Caleb rolling out of the car each morning, entering the squeaky school door, barrel-chested, his clothes smelling a combination of Tennessee earth, strong soap, and, I don't know, Camel cigarettes. I remember this, because on most days Caleb would hug me. And he always sported the "smirkle" below.
And what did Caleb learn at our school? Caleb was almost always under David Raymond's charge. Back then, David did most of the teaching of Caleb's grade, and I did most of the playing with the same kids in and outside school (death soccer, wrestling, and Airsoft Wars based on historic battles). Caleb read a lot because Mr. Raymond had the kids read, and read, and then read some more. Classics. Especially the kind that boys need to read to learn to be men.
I approved of this, because my goal for the students (who I affectionately called POMOS) was about determining what each student deeply valued, giving them more of that and less of everything else. While their reading was guided, each student was the ultimate interpreter of what she or he was reading. If the students did this right and didn't simply answer God for every question David Raymond asked them, then it told me that the students were assimilating. And if they don't assimilate it, it can never be a part of them.
Referencing something that Mr. Raymond recently said, Caleb loved the adventures of Odysseus. And he went on quite a few adventures himself when he left Stone Table from joining the wrestling team at Fairview High School to adventures with one of his best friends (Bryce Nolte), to arranging fistfights all over Fairview (I followed these on facebook, hahaha). One day, he showed up at my school with Bryce. I couldn't stop looking at Caleb's thick shoulders and arms, because the last time I saw him he was average-sized. But he thanked me for my compliment and complimented me on my thick shoulders and arms. Always the gentleman.
The last time I saw Caleb (Spring 2011), he told me that he was joining the Army.
The next time that I talked to Caleb (April 2014), he sent me a facebook message to call him. I got on the phone, and Caleb described to me how much combat was wearing on his spirit. It wasn't that he didn't like his job (he loved it). He was just trying to figure out how to do his job and retain his sense of justice without loving it too much. He didn't want combat to get normal.
We kept in contact from that point on, but only through Facebook Messenger and Instagram. I was a fan of his Instagram posts, a side-splitting marriage of absurdity and vulgarity that I relished because I could hear Caleb saying the memes with that smirkle on his lips. The last time we chatted was on Instagram (January 2017) where he described to me yet another one of his adventures where he jumped into a brawl out of duty for a Soldier-brother.
When I went to visit Ed and Tina White after Caleb's passing, they filled me in on the gap years when I wasn't in much contact with Caleb. Perhaps, the apex of my visit with them was when they pulled out a coat-of-arms that Caleb created for one of David Raymond's projects. Look at it here. It took my breath away.
So back to Saint Michael's shield. Caleb's posture was almost always defensive: defensive of his family, of his brothers, of himself, of others, of those he didn't know, of his brothers-in-arms, in service to his country, in service to the country in which he was fighting. I will remember Caleb as a shield more than a sword.
As miracles have it, a combat soldier who is a friend of mine mentioned in casual conversation (and unprovoked) the Cave of Saint Michael in Italy. I was stunned, because I had Caleb on my mind and he didn't know about it. I looked it up on the internet the next day and thought that I would write the curator of the shrine about Caleb White. I received a response within the hour. In Italian.
Gent. Sig. Robbie Grayson,
Ho appreso con tristezza la notizia della scomparsa di Caleb White. Ma subito il mio cuore si è rasserenato apprendendo dalla sua grande devozione a San Michele Arcangelo.
Il Signore ha voluto chiamare a Sé Caleb. Sia benedetto il Suo Nome. Ora Lui è felice ed intercede per i suoi cari fra i cori angelici ed i santi.
Coraggio e fede! Abbiamo l’assoluta sicurezza che un giorno ci ritroveremo insieme ai nostri cari che sono già passati sull’altra riva e con loro canteremo eternamente le lodi del Dio della vita.
Pregherò per lei e per il defunto Caleb e per suoi genitori e fratelli, toccati profondamente da questo lutto, attraverso l’infallibile canale del Santo Sacrificio della Messa e della preghiera quotidiana. San Michele Arcangelo che accompagna i defunti davanti al trono dell’Infinita Maestà lo introduca nella luce della Santa eternità dove tutti ci ritroveremo.
E’ certezza della nostra fede ed in tale convinzione La saluto affettuosamente.
P. Ladislao Suchy
Dear Mr Robbie Grayson,
I learned with sadness about the news of the death of Caleb White. But now my heart is cheered from learning about his great devotion to St. Michael the Archangel.
The Lord wanted to call Caleb to Himself. Blessed be His Name. Now Caleb is happy and intercedes for his loved ones among the choirs of angels and saints.
Have courage and faith! We have absolute confidence that one day we will meet together with our loved ones who have already passed on to the other side, and with them we eternally will sing the praises of the God of life.
I will pray for the deceased Caleb and his parents and brothers. Know that I am deeply touched by this grief, through the infallible Holy Sacrifice of the Mass channel and daily prayer. Saint Michael will accompany Caleb before the throne of Infinite Majesty, introducing him into the light of the Holy Eternity where we all will meet again.
I say this with the certainty of our faith and belief.
P. Ladislao Suchy
I will always remember Caleb and be grateful to God that he let me teach him, become friends with him, and learn from him. What a beautiful life God gave Ed, Tina, David, and Silas.
Saint Michael Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray. And do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, By the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits Who prowl through the world seeing the ruin of souls. Amen.