Gratitude Friday 1/15/21 – Mr. R a 9th Grade English Teacher Schools a Cocky Runt of a Kid
I am not sure what if anything has had a more powerful influence on my life than the written word and the books I have had the opportunity to read. Reading a lot of things from multiple perspectives is the primary method of how I have formed my world view. It is our connection to those who came before us. Some of what those authors were trying to tell are very much at the forefront of my mind in this first half of January 2021.
Going back through the years to September 1979, in West Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I was beginning the 9th grade and riding my bicycle down the wrong side of the street on that first day school. As I approached Nitschmann Junior High School, I nearly got hit by a car making a turn in front of me. I was shaken, and flipped the car the bird as I rode on, my arm raised behind me, my finger straight up and in a locked position. When I got to the bike rack, I saw a few of my friends and we started talking. Up stomps a visibly pissed off, “Mr. R”, the most frightining teacher in the school, the stuff of legend. He got within an inch from my face. In front of all the other kids and with a beet red face he yelled at me and told me if I ever flipped him the bird again he would stick my arm in one of my orifices so hard I would never be able to extricate it. I learned then who had been was driving that car.
As an aside here, it was the late 70s – a different era in education in a very different world. Also true from this school, one of the gym teachers, if he caught you smoking would give you the choice between suspension and three hard punches to the stomach. We took the punches, but I digress.
As Mr. R walked away, my stomach dropped out of the bottom of my feet. I knew and he had not yet realized - he was my 6th period English teacher that very day. We would meet in the last period. My life was over. It was the longest day of my short life. As 6th period commenced, I walked into the class, our eyes locked and I quickly slinked into a desk chair and attempted to disappear. The 45-minute class felt like it was hours long. As that final bell rung signaling the end of school for the day, his voice boomed through the room as he said “Mr. Stauffer, would you please wait a minute after class?” My friends who had been at the bike rack looked at me with pity as they exited the room and said their final goodbyes. I got up and walked slowly to the desk. I don’t recall the exact words, but essentially, he suggested we start over and I quickly agreed. I had no room to bargain.
Mr. R was a short man with a fiery temper that matched his red hair. He was also a demanding teacher. Through most of my early life education, I had a level of disregard for the process and an anti-establishment attitude. I did as little as possible and skipped as much as I could. Looking back, that class and the relationship I developed with Mr. R stands out as an exception to my modus operandi. I actually looked forward to that class. He was an excellent teacher who expected us to work and for once, I applied myself. One of the books dissected in that class was Lord of the Flies by William Golding. To this day I never had a better teacher. He made us understand what the book meant. It is relevant today.
He challenged me in class and beyond, we often met after class as school ended. I also think he saw something in the cocky runt of a kid I was. He shared other works with me out of his own library. He lent me Catcher in the Rye by Salinger and The Plague by Camus. We talked about these books and others and shared insights and thoughts about them. I learned things that have stayed with me to this day. Things that I learned, works of literature shared and my own readings, like Bradbury, Heinlein and Tolkien and the underlying themes and symbols from these books and other I have read give me context though which I view the world.
So this gratitude Friday, I am grateful for Mr. R, I am grateful are paths quite literally crossed on that first day of school in September 1979. I am grateful for writers, teachers, books and even the education I rebelled against as a young person. As Elie Wiesel said: "There is divine beauty in learning... To learn means to accept the postulate that life did not begin at my birth. Others have been here before me, and I walk in their footsteps. The books I have read were composed by generations of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and disciples. I am the sum total of their experiences, their quests. And so are you.'
What are you grateful for today?