I saw my friend today. Not literally as he has been gone for what is around four years now. His widow met me at a restaurant to present me with a box of some of his belongings. She said that since we were friends and colleagues that she wanted what was in the box to go to someone who would appreciate his wit, his candor, and his intellect. I was flattered and honored that she chose me.
What I was hoping for upon opening the box were things that reminded me of him. He was more than a brilliant man. He was witty, extraordinarily dedicated to his chosen profession of teaching history, and was a scholar of the first order. I knew that some of him would be enclosed in that box, but did not know how much. I was just hoping to see him again through what he left behind.
It felt like I was trying to cheat on a test or something; checking for my old friend’s crib notes before a test. I wanted to see what his mind was really like when there were no students buzzing about, no other teachers occupying his time, or me squeezing as much knowledge from him as I could. I was a young teacher, as green as a fresh banana, but I knew that he had the stuff I needed if I was ever going to be ripened and more than competent at my job. So, I was a pain in his ass, and on a regular basis. I studied how he went about his work, watched him in the classroom, noticed how he interacted with his students. For Ron’s part, he was patient and more than willing to share and teach me. I would say he took me under his wing.
Most of all, I was fascinated with his deep knowledge of history and his application of what he had learned over the years. See, he never stopped learning even though he was in the twilight of his career and mine was just beginning. His was a constant drive to find out why and then take that why into his classroom. From articles that he culled from newspapers, to readings that he felt were important for both him and his students, to musings on various historical topics, he never stopped working. This was quite apparent in the meticulous notes he kept on every aspect of his teaching. He may not have had the Ph.D., but he could put most of them to shame by sheer work ethic alone.
I was looking for my friend in that box. I wanted to somehow see his face again, hear his voice, and laugh at his wit. There were secrets in that box, I was sure, and I was going to find them out, I just knew it.
His wife and I enjoyed our lunch, reminisced of him and all that he was. She told me that he saw promise in me all of those years ago, and I told her that he was the one that inspired me to follow in his footsteps with what I wanted to teach. He was the gold standard, I told her, and I was trying to reach that level too. When we parted, she hugged me and gave me a kiss on the cheek, telling me that now she understood what he saw in me. I did the best I could to suppress the lump that somehow grew in my throat.
When I got home, the box came with me into the basement where I could open it with some privacy and carefully peruse the contents. I expected that the box would be like Ron’s classroom; papers scattered about, and a messy desk like a tornado had visited the classroom and left its mark. He always knew where his papers were even if no one else did. The box was not that way at all. Organized, everything in its proper place. I knew Ron did not do this and I chucked to myself. At first, there was nothing special. Some old newspaper articles, some instructional books, and even a few textbooks. I was looking for him and all I got was staid information packed carefully into a paper box. I kept digging.
A came across a five-page letter. Actually, it was more like a script depicting the narration for a roast. It was a year-end summary of the shenanigans that ensued throughout the course of that school year by my mentor and his friends. Everything from making fun of losing some silly bet to what would be considered politically incorrect jokes at everyone’s expense. It was fun to read as I remembered most of the guys that were mentioned. I was the young buck, the fourth-year guy among giants who were nearing the end of their careers. They loved their job and they loved each other’s company. They had a bond forged by their working together, spending time together and trusting each other. I came in on the tail end of that era, an era that is sadly no longer. Camaraderie in the teaching profession has gone the way of the White Rhino, limited to interaction in the school building and then only with ones “click” is how it is now. Some of the veteran teachers who remember the old days find themselves standing in the rain, no longer searching for a way to bridge the gap. It was not always that way. My friend did not have it that way, and I was reminded of that when I discovered the year end summary. I smiled, and even laughed out loud as I read the off-color, bordering on vulgar jokes among friends and colleagues. All in great fun, but verboten today. They welcomed me into their veteran group and I approached them with the respect and reverence that they had earned.
After a few smaller piles of scraps, I came across a manila folder. You know, the kind that contains an evaluation or some such thing. It was thick, and had a little blue sticky on the outside of it. “Notes—hand written” was on it. I found what I was looking for.
I took the folder and opened it slowly as I did not want any of the papers to be dropped and as a result the contents be out of order. There he was. My friend and mentor. His handwritten notes about everything from test questions that he was drafting to his personal study notes from various books he was reading. I recognized the handwriting immediately as it scrawled across the page. Like me, his handwriting left something to be desired. The beauty of it was that unlike me, whose notes are kept on a cold, emotionless computer, his was in his own hand. I felt as though I was actually seeing him again, almost watching him scribble his reading notes that would later be used as the basis for his lectures or tests or class activities.
Carefully, almost with reverence, I looked through these handwritten pages, looking for some nugget of unique information that had eluded me. After all of the years of study myself, there was not much that I was unfamiliar with, but for some reason his notes struck me as more authentic than mine. Maybe it was the handwriting. Maybe it was the outline form that he used. Maybe it was my reverence for him that was making them so. He had iterations of test questions. There would be one attempt, then portions of that question would have a line driven through it and below would the revision. That process went on down the page. It was as though I was there watching his process.
His study notes were similar too. Notes, revision, then his personal thoughts on his own notes in the margin. How he was going to present the material, what supplemental readings would go with it and the timing of the lessons through the semester. My method is similar. It should be as I got it from him. Seeing his again though, brought back many memories of a great educator, an outstanding person, but more importantly, my friend. As I sat there and read his notes I found what I was looking for, the nugget of information. I was reminded that very little is an accident. Preparation is the magic bean. Meticulous, relentless, dogged preparation. That was more than clear in his notes. Ron never rested on what he already knew as there was always more to ingest. He reminded me of that as I was reading his notes. For me, a further reminder to never be satisfied with what has been done. The past does not rest, but reveals more of herself if we keep on asking the questions. Most of the time we do not. We pass the sign on the road and then forget about it as we move forward. A fatal flaw in our genetic make-up. The answers to our present are found in our past, hence we must continue to study it without bias, without prejudice, and with an open mind. Ron reminded me of that. The teacher teaches the student once again.
Once I finished going through the material, I decided that much of what was in the box was outdated and no longer of use. That is the key, right? To remain relevant, useful and have something to contribute. However, what was and remains timeless were those handwritten notes. He was there, hunched over his desk, pouring over his material, deciding what to write, to keep, to revise. It was all there in his own hand. He was there. My friend was there. I think I am going to keep those notes.