I received the news by a text message, a kind of chain-mail message being forwarded from friend to friend to friend. It was Sunday evening. We’d finished dinner and my toddler was nattering away into my ear, the TV blaring into my other ear.
I half-read the message, confused and refusing to believe that I was reading correctly. I glanced up and laughed at something ludicrous that my toddler had said.
“No!” my inner voice insisted. “It cannot be!”
I looked at my phone and read the message slowly. No. No. No.
When I was ten years old, I was moved to a very small, private school, called King’s School West Rand. We were about nine students in my grade, with other classes numbering as few as three. We were a family, and at the head of our little flock was headmistress, Anna-Marie Russell.
She was tall, imposing. She wore dark red lipstick and long flowing dresses. Sometimes jeans. She had practically-styled, short brown hair which never changed, and naturally-tanned skin. And really beautiful blue eyes that literally shone. She sang, a lot. She had this incredible, clear voice, the kind befitting a 1930’s musical – strong and resounding with just the tiniest warble at the right time. If I close my eyes, I can still hear her sing.
She was our “mother” at school. We called her Aunty Anna-Marie. The school grew, and with time, newer and younger students would call her Mrs. Russell… But not us, not the original Kings School-ers. We always called her Aunty Anna-Marie. We loved her. Sometimes she disciplined us and we despised her briefly for it. As all kids occasionally hate their parents for ‘ruining their life’. But most of us really loved her. Or maybe I just remember that I did.
On Sunday, 7th August 2016, this tall, big-hearted woman was killed in a tragic accident. Receiving that text, I was so confused. Why is this hurting so much? I haven’t seen her in over ten years! Although we’ve interacted regularly on Facebook, that was it. Why do I suddenly miss her so? Why is my heart so broken about a woman who was really just an essential part of my long-gone history?
I’ve realized this week what an influence Aunty Anna-Marie had during some of the most formative years of my time on earth. Besides my own mother, I would dare say that she may have been one of the most inspiring women to grace my life. I still can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s become apparent that my past is not as long-gone as I thought it was.
Aunty Anna-Marie knew every scholar’s name. She knew where each of us came from, what kind of family we had. She had a knack for identifying strengths and weaknesses without much effort. Or maybe it took a great deal of effort and she just dressed herself in peace every day. Whatever the case, every single student mattered. And that has stayed with me, something I’ve aspired to live out: every single human being matters.
Aunty Anna-Marie loved the Bible. How she loved that book! And how we loathed it….! She would make us memorize and recite selected passages – entire chapters! Her face would light up to hear a student recite her favourite scriptures. I could not understand why she cared so much that we knew these words. Little did we know that she was equipping us with a tool more valuable than our academic education: to prepare young Christians to enter a world filled with so much pain and corruption and hatred that it could rip the faith from under your feet in no time.
Aunty Anna-Marie treasured worship and prayer. When I look back, it feels as though I spent half my childhood and teen years singing some hymn or chorus, or sweating at the prospect of being asked to pray aloud in morning meetings. It was seriously un-cool. But in time, I became one of those kids that didn’t care so much anymore. I sang! I did the corny actions! I clapped! I uttered shaky prayers. I was OK with being uncool, because I saw how blessed Aunty Anna-Marie was in her worship, that light in her eyes, and I wanted that. You have to know what lights you up inside and go after it.
But you know, one of the first things I thought when I received that bloody awful text message was, “Oh, how she loved the Lord!” That was the first and last thing I remember about her: her passionate, unrelenting love for Jesus and all that He’s done for her. And of all the things that I learned from her (and people like her, like my own mum), that one lesson stands above all. I hope that when I’m called Home, that will be said of me too.
Since hearing the news, I have had a phrase running through my head over and over and over, her voice echoing from deep within my past, one of her favourite portions of scripture: Rejoice in the Lord always! Again, I say, rejoice! How my heart hurts, that this earth has lost someone like Aunty Anna-Marie, and mostly that her family has lost her… for now, anyway, until we all write that final exam. But I’m filled with gratitude for all those big hugs that she gave, for all the songs she filled our heads and hearts with, and for showing us how to follow a God ardently and with tireless dedication.
I’m filled with gratitude that God chose to share her with us for a time, for His good purpose.
I only wish I’d written this sooner. To say “thank you“, instead of “in memory of”.
Anna-Marie Russell left King’s School and went on to become Director at Association of Christian Schools International, becoming a true champion for Christian education. She will be remembered and loved, far and wide.
She leaves behind a beautiful family. Prayer upon prayer upon prayer, for the healing of their hearts.