Tuesday, February 09, 2010

On a brief memorial

Okay, so this is going to be brief not because I don't care or have the time but because it seems untoward to wail and beat my breast over a man about whom I haven't given more than a passing thought in more than a decade, and because, unlike my granddad, this man likely has hundreds of people who are looking back and thinking the exact same things that I am without needing prompting.

Jim Fletcher died of a heart attack last night. He was one of my teachers in high school, teaching English and humanities, and he was one of two teachers out of those four years who made high school even remotely bearable. He was, in retrospect, a complete sonofabitch--years later, his students can still say "underwater basketweaving" and "fries with that burger" and "sweetness and light" (which line was always delivered with the deepest sarcasm) and everyone understands and laughs while at the same time cringing at the memory of being on the receiving end of those barbs. He was the type of teacher who would drop a textbook on his desk--loudly--to wake up a sleepy class, and he was known to actually shoot students between the eyes with a Nerf gun for giving stupid answers.

And yet he was the favorite teacher of more students than I can count. When I was named Star Student for the high school my senior year (yeah, geek, I know), I named Mr. Fletcher as my corresponding Star Teacher--and was informed that he'd already received that honor at least three times in the past. Students always studied for his classes if for no others not because the material was hard (although it was) but because that's just how you take a class with Mr. Fletcher. In humanities, he taught an entire unit on comparative religion, and he offered extra credit to students who stole Gideon bibles as reference materials when we studied creation myths. At one time, he had about eight bibles with my name and the names of everyone else on the Academic Decathlon team (yeah, geek, we've established that) after a trip to regionals, where we emptied Mary Katherine's suitcase to hold all of the bibles we stole from every hotel room we could find. I'm probably going to hell for that.

I don't think I've ever met a teacher who had a deeper love for his subject than Fletch, and he instilled that love in his students, if only for a few semesters at a time.

I can't speak for anybody else, but I worked harder than I'd worked before or since not because I feared his ridicule (although I did) but because I craved his approval. He was a hard man to impress--he wasn't the type to withhold approval just to put you in your place; he just had really high standards and wasn't going to gush over anything that didn't meet them. The best note I've ever--ever--gotten on a paper was from him. "You're too young to be this cynical." I got an A-. I might as well have gotten a gold star, or maybe an Academy Award, for the pride it instilled in me.

This post has gotten a lot longer than I intended, and I did intend to keep in brief for the reason given above--I haven't really thought about him in years, much less gotten in contact with him. The news this morning really kicked me in the stomach, largely out of a sense of guilt that a man who'd been so very, very important to me during those hellish four years dropped completely out of my consciousness until he was dead.

But as I was mooning around the kitchen in my post-Catholic guilt, The Boy pointed out something valuable: You're supposed to forget. High school is a time when you learn the things that will make you a successful and productive human being, and then you leave high school and try to do that. You're meant to look forward, not back--teachers prepare you for the future, and that's where you're supposed to go. So while I still feel guilty about not thinking more about such a significant--lifesaving, even--influence on my life, it can be argued that it's a tribute to his work as an educator. He prepared me like no other to go out into the world and conquer it. (Whether this has happened is debatable.) And on this occasion to look back, it's good to know that I'm in the company of so many other students who share that experience.

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