January 27, 2022 Local Stories in and Around St. Joseph, Illinois

‘Nadirah knew that growing up in St. Joe was just the beginning of her journey through the world’

Nadirah Edwards left an impression on everyone who met her.

Whether it was her kind smile and brilliance at a young age, her artistic talent, her feisty demeanor when discussing something she believed in or her dreams for the future the St. Joseph-Ogden High School senior was not your typical teenager.

And the SJO community is mourning her loss.

SJO art teacher Jake Beccue said Edwards’ artistic talent was unmatched, something he realized the very first day he met her.

On Edwards’ first day of high school, the school had a routine fire drill. Beccue had overlooked her while taking attendance because she was sitting on the ground facing the other direction from the class. He went over to her and realized she was drawing in a small sketchbook.

“The drawing was far along and extremely detailed. In that moment I remember thinking’, This girl is a real talent,’” Beccue recalled. “‘What the hell am I going to teach her?’”

Beccue said that Edwards approached her life with optimism and fearlessness.

“The result was a work of art exemplifying a high aesthetic quality,” he said. “Everything she did exceeded my expectations.”

Even at a young age, Edwards’ artistic talent was obvious. Her third-grade teacher, Mindy James, said she remembered her artistic abilities standing out even in third grade. Her middle school band and chorus teacher, Jeremy Dassow, also remembered her artistic abilities.

“She was one of those kids who exudes the arts,” he said. “In a town where sports seems to dominate though, she did not mind one bit being an arts kid because that was her.”

Dassow said Edwards was one of the most gifted artists he has seen in his 10 years of teaching in St. Joseph. Dassow said Edwards would carry a sketch book with her wherever she went, and by eighth grade, she was willing to share her art with him and the class.

“A lot of times at the beginning of chorus she would come in and start to doodle and with some convincing she would share her art with me and the class,” he said. “Her art was very unique and you could tell it was something that came easy and natural to her. Her smile and creativity will be missed dearly in St. Joe.”

In high school, Edwards was a member of the National Honor Society, an honor roll student, a member of the Art Club, participated in drama productions and band and SJO’s Rube Goldberg team. She also participated in SJO’s We the People Civics team.

In 2018, her t-shirt design was selected to represent the Art Club. She was the youngest artist to receive the honor. In 2020, she placed second in the Eric Show, competing against 190 other high school artists.

“She was humble but also very grateful,” Beccue said. “I think she enjoyed taking in the work of other students more than anything. I honestly think the awards were a bonus.”

SJO Drama Director Chandler Dalton said Edwards had been involved with the drama department since her sophomore year. She originally started working on the stage crew and working on the sets. Just last year, she made her stage debut in “Trap.” This year, she played Elliot Williams in “Murder on the 518.”

“She has really come out of her shell in the past couple of years,” Dalton said. “She played her part perfectly. She got the last word in during the fall play and ended the show.”

Dalton said Edwards shared similarities with her character. In the play, Elliot Williams is a writer who wrote murder mysteries. She was taking notes the entire play and although she didn’t say a lot, her presence was always known in the scene.

“Nadirah was a lot like the character she played,” Dalton said. “She was a talented artist and instead of taking scribble notes she would always doodle on her notepad. Sometimes during rehearsal, I would catch a glimpse of the notepad and there was always an elaborate cartoon doodle on the page instead of notes.”

SJO Principal Gary Page said everyone who met Edwards liked her.

 “She was one of the brightest, most talented, and kind-hearted Spartans in the school,” Page said. “She was an amazing human being that didn’t have an enemy and could light up anyone’s day with her kind smile.”
Page said Edwards’ intelligence stood out to him.

“She was insightful, diligent, original and thorough in her work. Most of all she enjoyed learning and it showed,” he said. “She was selfless and one of the most kind-hearted individuals in school.”

James said even at a young age Edwards brought a calmness and stability to a classroom.

“Her smile deposited unspoken joy on a daily basis,” Edwards said. “She was quiet, but brilliant.”

James said one of the best aspects about Edwards was her unwavering ability to see the best in others and want the best for them.

“Nadirah was a gem,” she said.

Beccue said Edwards was extremely focused on her work. She would say hello to him the moment she walked in the classroom door and wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye, but the rest of her time was spent focusing on her work.

SJO teacher Marshall Schacht said it amazed him he was only Edwards’ teacher for one semester.

“During that short time, she shared so much of her spirit and her soul in her expressive writing that I was privileged to know her,” he said. “While other students hold back their innermost thoughts, she let me in.”

Schacht said Edwards considered each assignment fully before charging ahead with an answer. She read to fully understand concepts and wrote as if her words were art.

“There was a rhythm and flow to her writing which would allow you to hear her voice hovering over the text,” he said.   “Examining her drafts and essays you can see the care that she took with each phrase.”

Schacht described Edwards’ curious nature and her desire to always learn more. She wanted to learn more about the Hegelian Dialectic, which is a method of argument employed by the 19th Century German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, which relies on a contradictory process between opposing sides.

“That led to email exchanges with my father, an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois,” Schacht said. “I was proud to get these two deep-thinkers together and their brief exchange illuminated something about Nadirah. This complicated concept deals with the perspective of the world that you have given your surroundings.  Nadirah knew that growing up in St. Joe was just the beginning of her journey through the world. Her art and writing express this awareness and her desire to know and experience more.”

Schacht was also Edwards’ advisor for the We the People Civics team. The team competes in mock congressional hearings that allows students to develop answers to complex Constitutional questions in groups. 

“Nadirah’s imagination, her passionate prose and her unique presentation style were going to be on full display at next month’s state finals,” Schacht said. “Though remote, the competition would have given her a format to speak passionately about subjects that she holds close to her heart.”

The unit We the People is working on focuses on the challenges that American Constitutional democracy faces today in areas involving social justice. 

“Nadirah’s statement draft about John Lewis and ‘good trouble’ reflected her fighting spirit, her compassionate heart and her keen mind,” Schacht said. “She recognized that all voices must be heard and listened to. She championed the cause of empathetic civic education and its importance in schools and society. We must be willing to look into someone’s soul and try to know them rather than judge. I would have loved to have worked with her in the weeks leading up to our state competition and in the months leading to nationals. I would have loved to have continued to get to know her and to appreciate the wonder seen through her eyes.”

Edwards’ U.S. History teacher, Don Beckett, said Edwards was a gentle soul. It was a joy for him to watch her start and eventually finish a journey to what she felt was an appropriate answer in class. Beckett said Edwards’ tone, pitch and speed of an answer were always measured.

“But she had conviction,” he said. “There was a passion in there.”

Beckett said people may not remember Edwards as feisty due to her gentle and kind nature.

“But she would get feisty,” he said. “Particularly when it came to the quality of people. That is what is lasting, or what will last with me about her.”

Beckett said at the start of her junior year in U.S. History, the class participated in an assignment asking if Columbus Day should be renamed. They held a mock debate, and Edwards volunteered to argue to change the name of Columbus Day. Beckett still remembers how Edwards spoke with conviction and was emphatic in the points she was making regarding why the holiday should be renamed. He said he also remembered this summer when they were doing work for We the People and holding Zoom meetings discussing social justice issues and how important those issues were to Edwards.

“She never wavered in how important it is to be a part of the community, how other people matter and the goal is for all of us to be better people,” he said. “All of us. It was a pleasure to get to know her in that regard.”

Beckett said Edwards was always one of the last students to leave class every day, along with a few of her friends.

“We would either continue a conversation we had in class or it would be idle chit chat before the end of the day,” he said. “Every day of her junior year, that is how the day would end. It would be the end of a good note — it would either end with a follow-up conversation, which to teachers is gravy, or it would end with a smile, and she has a lovely smile.”

Beckett said people often speak about which teachers inspired them but the students influence teachers as well.

“They are the best we have to offer,” he said. “They are always optimistic about the future. The glass is always half full or fuller. That’s is something that needs to be noted about how much these kids affect us, how much they influence us and how much these students, these wonderful students of ours, have a profound effect on us long after they left.”

Photo provided by Chandler Dalton

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