I recently sent cards to three of my former teachers. My high school junior year English teacher, my freshman History teacher, and my 6th grade teacher. My junior high drama teacher died before I ever even thought of writing him. Robin Williams passed before I ever really stopped to comprehend his influence on my life. I’ve lost two uncles and an aunt I didn’t get to know very well. Kurt Vonnegut had no idea I existed or how much he affected and inspired me. I meant to write my English teacher when Kurt passed, but didn’t. The devastation of losing Robin Williams made me seize the day. Yes, Dead Poets Society is my favorite movie. Carpe Diem is written inside my college class ring. I sometimes go by Nuwanda.
Truth in advertising.
I found three beautiful blank cards, sat down at my favorite local coffee shop and started scribbling my feelings down in a notebook, with actual paper and an actual pen. Retro. I thought about how my English teacher had inspired and encouraged me, how funny and sincere and creative he was. He had us read Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut, and works by Emerson and Thoreau. Despite being released on my birthday in 1989, this was the year I saw Dead Poets Society, and found myself sitting under a tree in the park at 7am on a Saturday with a crumbling paperback of Walden, having an existential crisis. My teacher wasn’t the basketball coach putting in the minimum effort while waiting for the season to start; he really loved English and teaching. I loved writing for him, and the books he had us read helped inspire me to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy.
Thoreau and Vonnegut. Two fantastic dead guys.
My freshman History teacher was fresh as a daisy. I don’t know that he was even 25. He had a passion for history. He was excited, he was fun, and he was having fun. He taught us by putting us in the situations we were learning about. We felt what it was like to live in communism, what it was like to be building a life in the 1920s and then have the stock market crash. The class member who survived it was the only one who had been smart enough to buy a safe to keep his money in. His lessons were visceral, and his enthusiasm contagious. He made everything so interesting. I want to be that good at what I do. I want to be that excited and inspiring and encouraging. It wasn’t just a good time; those lessons stuck with me, vividly. I only wish he could have taught all of my history classes.
When worlds collide.
There aren’t sufficient words to begin expressing what my 6th grade teacher has meant to me. Not only is he my favorite teacher, he’s one of my favorite human beings. The man is so funny and so creative, and just the right degree of off. I lived for that class, had to be on my deathbed to miss school, and really, really, really didn’t want to graduate and have to leave. He loves duct tape and M*A*S*H. We could call him any time except when M*A*S*H was on. We roasted a pig in the ground, played hockey in the multipurpose room, took turns in the classroom closet biting down on Wintergreen Life Savers to see them spark. We had a contest to see who could walk away with the grossest hair during our three day class trip to the Catalina Island Marine Institute. On a jewelry making paper I wrote and necklace I made, he commented that he couldn’t wait to buy my jewelry someday. He has no idea what that meant to me. He made me feel like I could do anything and that he was genuinely excited and supportive of anything we wanted to pursue. I wish I’d had children simply so they could have been in his class. I’ve visited his classroom many times since 6th grade. Drove by his house when I was 16 and getting my drivers license. Sent him postcards from my trip to Europe before college, and graduation announcements from college. My nephew transferred into his class last year and I was over the moon.
Frank Burns eats worms.
I got to walk back into his classroom after years of being away and was amazed that it smells exactly the same. The pictures from our Catalina trip are still on the wall by the sink in the back. The magic is still there. When I came home I burst into tears. I was the sword thrust back into the forge that was his classroom and everything it and he meant to me. This is where I was made. This is my origin story. I was back in the primordial ooze where anything was possible. Where I hadn’t made any life mistakes, hadn’t squandered my potential, hadn’t wasted time, hadn’t lost years to depression. I could take this bent and battered, road weary sword and reshape it, hammer out the kinks, put back that high gloss shine. Sear off the ragged phoenix feathers to the pink, new skin underneath. A do-over. A restart. A new film reel. I didn’t know how much I needed that.
The gin from this still in The Swamp could help with the burning.
These are the sentiments I expressed in the missives to my teachers, and now the interwebs. Men without whom I would not be who I am today. Men I can’t possibly thank or fully express my gratitude for. My words were feeble but they were heartfelt and true. Write those people who have really touched you. The ones who inspired you, believed in you, encouraged you, stood up for you, molded you. The people you wouldn’t be you without. Let them know NOW how they changed your life. Don’t wait to say it all at some memorial service someday. We wait until someone is gone before we let them know how much they mean to us. Don’t be that guy. Let them all know now. I suggest a hand written note. Really surprise them with mail. I know, my handwriting is atrocious, too. Don’t matter. Do it anyway. It’s something I’m so glad I did now, while we’re all still alive and kicking.
With all my love and adoration to Craig Andrews, John Hoj, and Kent Houston.