I'm not really sure how I fell down this rabbit hole of memory. A bunch of little things I suppose: an old photo, a reminiscence with old friends, an email, a surprising movie title... Here I am, in the middle of an ordinary day, feeling like the kid I was at the age of 13. I can see myself sitting in a worn down old classroom, sitting at a shared rectangular desk with two other girls, listening in rapt wonder to the words of an old book coming to life in the voice of a seemingly unassuming man seated casually at the center of the room.
Every word, every phrase, is spoken with emotion and clarity. We are not "learning" or "studying", we are feeling the story out with this man as our guide. Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is a short novel, with a moral worth discovering. A favourite of our teacher who seems both old and young all at once. When I had the same teacher again for my final year of junior high I was sick for the few days he was reading of Mice and Men to our class (yes, he read it to every class, every year), but as I sat at home, I could still remember every inflection, character voice, and pause he'd used to breathe life into the book. I still have a copy of the book tucked away on my book shelf, a living memory of a man who had changed the course of my life in a way so subtle yet deep.
We all have that one teacher. The one who taught us something about the world and ourselves that left us completely changed in our very spirit. This teacher was that to everyone he met. I've never met a person who he didn't change for the better. I think his greatest charm was that, besides the fact that he loved his subject, he was a comedian, and he wasn't so self-involved that he would spare even himself a few hilarious barbs. His eyes always had this wonderful sparkle, and he always had a joke ready for every occasion. Not to say they were always good jokes. He was the first person I'd met who was such a devotee of puns (my husband and father-in-law are always quite fond and skillful in this craft!) and one-liners. I've never met another person who could make the rules of grammar quite so clear while so comical. He could be hilarious and then deadly serious. He could engage in physical comedy (usually in relation to his tie as I recall) and then dive right into a moral discussion about euthanasia (or whatever topic was in the news) seamlessly and remain completely credible to his eager students.
These many years later I still remember so many details of my two years as his student. His fondness for a very particular brand of pen, his Comodore computer and digitised pictures of all his students, the poetry books he published of his students work every year (I kept mine, the first time my words were published), his print-out the of rules of grammar, particularly the one for commas, his miles-long final exam that he would invigilate with his trade-mark humour, and so much more. He kept in touch with any student who emailed or sent correspondence, myself included. I met him on the street years after our last class and he remember my name, and that of my best friends (one of whom I'd met in his class back in our first year at the school). The last email I got from him is still saved in my email.
The email is dated from 2005, not long before he passed away. This man, an inspiration in my life and that of so many others, succumbed to cancer that same year. The last email I have from him is full of reality mixed with his trademark positivity. Even though the cancer was taking away his strength, he talked about making a point to go out and enjoy the sunshine. His last lesson to me was so much like every other lesson he'd taught to me: life is worth living, even when things are tough. That dying shouldn't stop you from living life, even if it slowed you down a little.