By Noah Ward
Growing up the son of US Pentecostal missionaries in the Bible Belt that is Southern Missouri, I had interacted with very few people who did not believe in God throughout my youth. That was until I got into my later years of high school. In my junior year I came across Gabriel Isackson (Ike as most students knew him), the AP English teacher, National Honors Society faculty representative, teachers’ union president, and most importantly for me, a devote atheist.
Although I never took one of his classes, we still found ourselves connecting in hallway conversations and after school while doing projects for the administration. Once I graduated high school, though, Ike and I truly became friends as Ike offered to buy a few of us dinner at a local pizza restaurant to celebrate graduating. Knowing that I should never look a gift horse in the mouth, I accepted. From that first dinner through many more occasions of eating, drinking, and laughing over the last seven years, Ike taught me what a good atheist life can look like. A few months ago, Ike died at the age of 49.
The first lesson I learned from Ike was that I was not alone in my disbelief. I can still remember sitting down at that pizza restaurant next to Ike for the first time and launching into a diatribe of my frustrations with religion. I was shocked by my own outburst as I so rarely shared those frustrations with even my closest of friends. Yet, Ike listened calmly, nodding here and there, giving me a smile at other times. He did not push me to denounce the church, but he affirmed my anger.
In a world where nearly everyone who surrounded me stressed the importance of having faith, Ike was the first to tell me it was okay to not understand it – to not have faith.
That memory has stuck with me after all these years. I look back on the many meals that followed with a sense of relief. They were spaces where I could go and know I was among peers, among people who understood my beliefs in a society that often treated such perspectives as morally broken. Ike created a space in which I could begin to purge the rage and pain to make way for a new life of hope.
The second lesson I learned from Ike was the importance of finding meaning in the everyday, the ordinary. During one of our meals together, I had been feeling particularly lost, struggling to find a sense of meaning in the world. In an act of sheer confusion, I found myself turning to Ike asking, “Where do you turn?” Ike looked around the table and said, “here, to y’all.”
He went on to talk about how much these sorts of conversations gave him purpose and filled his life with meaning. It was simple, but I felt moved. Ike always found such joy in the simple things, a good conversation, beautiful poetry, a tasty bite of food. Over the next year as I went back to college and continued to struggle with my faith, I found myself aligning more and more with Ike. The deep conversations I had with friends became my source of meaning making. Being in the moment, appreciating the everyday beauty of the person across from me became my north star. Whenever I felt lost, all I had to do was look around me and see the people who surrounded me in all their wild humanity. In those moments the world again would make a bit more sense.
One of the last things I learned from Ike, or at least the last thing I will share in this blog post, is the importance of making the most of the time you have.
My group would sit down with Ike a few more times over the next year. During one of those conversations at a diner, he informed us he would be stepping away from teaching. When we asked why, he joked, “Because there is not going to be a class as good as yours.” After my group put aside our egos and we asked a little deeper, he noted, “I want to spend more time with my family. With my daughters.” He talked about how difficult it was to be a teacher, how time consuming. He talked about how he wanted to be able to focus on making memories with those he loved the most.
I cannot express how grateful I am that he made that decision. He was able to spend the next five years with them as the center of his life. I watched as he went on family road trips, attended his girls’ soccer games, and just enjoyed the peace of life that comes with being around those who love you. Ike had an infectious smile and I swear he seemed to have smiled enough for three lifetimes over these last few years. Ike put what was most important first. Not his career, or accolades, but rather the time he had with his family. It is a lesson I fear too many of us learn too late.
Ike was a great man and a true friend. He helped make me the man I am today. I will not speak of owing him, because I know Ike would scoff at such a statement. So instead, I will simply say that I treasure the time I had with him and carry forth the gifts of wisdom he gave me with all the holy thankfulness that a simple atheist can muster.
In closing I turn to one of Ike’s favorite authors, Albert Camus:
“There is a life and there is a death, and there are beauty and melancholy between.”
Here’s to the beauty of your life, my friend.