This commentary was contributed by San Benito High School instructor Vanessa Kirchner. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent BenitoLink or other affiliated contributors.
On Saturday Dec. 15, just before 11 a.m., I sat down in the last row of pews on the right hand side of Christ Fellowship Church with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. I was about to witness the Celebration of Life of one of our own, a Haybaler by the name of John Matthew Schilling. As more and more mourners trickled in to the church, ushers began setting up folding chairs to accommodate everyone. On the altar, a church friend of the Schillings played a medley of Johnny’s favorite songs, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in particular. I could see the Veggie Tales-themed balloons all the way from my vantage point, which was a favorite show of Johnny’s, as well as a wreath in the shape of a heart covered in beautiful blue flowers, the color of Johnny’s eyes. I will never forget those eyes.
Johnny Schilling couldn’t move freely or speak or breathe without the aid of machinery. He couldn’t throw a baseball or play basketball with other students his age. He wasn’t the student body president or part of the homecoming royalty. It is easy to take some of these abilities for granted, and many of us, myself included, would greatly struggle to cope with life in Johnny’s shoes. Most people want to make an impact on others — to be thought of positively and cherished by our peers. Despite his very obvious disadvantages, Johnny was able to make a positive impact on nearly everyone he met, a fact made abundantly clear by the huge turnout for his service. His family even spoke about how many people who they didn’t know would greet Johnny with enthusiastic friendliness during trips to the store. What did Johnny do — what could he do, given his predicament — to inspire such good will and friendship in his community?
I first met Johnny at San Benito High School, where I work as an instructor. We serve many students with unique special needs, so I had grown accustomed to seeing kids in wheelchairs or with an aide by their side. Even so, Johnny’s condition immediately stood out to me as very difficult when I saw him with his nurse, Veronica. “I’ll make it a point to walk up to him and smile to brighten up his day if it’s been a tough one,” I thought to myself as our paths began to cross. Little did I know that what I had intended to do for him, he would do for me and continue to do so whenever I saw him!
Most teachers choose their career because they want to make a difference in young people’s lives, but the often-overlooked flip side to that coin is that our students can sometimes make a very profound difference in our own lives, in a way, becoming teachers themselves. What Johnny gave me, and what I think he gave most of us who knew him, was a measure of his infectious joy and humor, even in the face of difficult or unpleasant circumstances, which he experienced to an extreme degree. Unless he was sleeping, it seemed like he always had the biggest, most genuine ear-to-ear smile on his face. And he didn’t just smile with his mouth! His unmistakable blue eyes, the proverbial windows to his soul, twinkled with joy and a hint of mischief.
Over and over during the service I heard things like, ”You made my day ten times better.” “When you would smile, everyone else would smile.”
“You taught us about finding joy in the simplest things and that it is okay to be silly.” His long-time pediatrician Dr. Bruce Yager, who has worked to heal so many of Hollister’s children, said, “Every time I was with Johnny, I had a ‘wee!!!’ moment… Johnny saw things that brought him joy that I didn’t see.”
As I sat and wept and listened to all the heartfelt testimony of this young man’s positive influence, I thought, ”All these words and Johnny couldn’t hardly speak!” In the same way, the way Johnny made us feel, as well as the lessons he taught us, might be difficult to convey in words, but they are no less real to those of us who knew him.
And so I am comfortable in speaking for all of us when I say that, when we saw him and spoke with him, we felt some of his joy even on “bad days.” Seeing that smile of his put a smile on our own faces. Hearing his no-holds-barred, unrestrained and unrepentant laughter helped us see the humor in the mundane and the frustrating.
As I watched the slideshow celebrating Johnny’s time with us, the words of Clarence, the angel in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” came to mind:
“Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” Johnny, you’ve left quite the hole in a lot of people, but only because of everything you gave us. Thank you.
I extend my sincerest condolences and deepest gratitude to the Schilling family. Their unwavering support for Johnny against all odds made his time with us rich and fulfilling and gave him the opportunity to give the world a measure of his precious joy.