My fifteenth high school reunion is coming up next year. Not that I am thinking about it already, and not that I plan on going.
I was good at physics in high school. Our teacher was awesome. He knew his subject and did a great job teaching it to us; he was tough but fair, consistent and principled. I would like to say he was good enough to teach at university, but his temperament actually made him perfect for high school. He was where he needed to be.
We made fun of him because he was middle-aged and living with his mother, and the meanders of life were still a mystery to us. He pretty much looked like George Costanza, and in our arrogance of youth we also assumed he had no life beside the classroom and the bus he got on after school. We made fun of his English, because we had no concept of what it meant to be forty and try to teach in a second language; because we had no idea what it felt like to be overweight and stand in front of a mostly all-girls classroom. We were sixteen and full of ourselves because we went to one of the best schools in the country, and were handpicked, tested and interviewed for the advanced class that would have half their subjects taught in English. We were sixteen and "mistake" was not in our vocabulary. We had only ever been overachievers, and empathy was an ironic beast that we would learn to grant to others only after seeing our own selves fall. Somewhere down the line.
Whether he was in fact to be pitied or not, he certainly would not take shit from anyone, and he damn straight would not demean himself to be popular. There were one or two occasions in our senior year when we hung out having drinks with some of the teaching staff. Our young and goofy homeroom teacher was one of them, and so were the philosophy and Latin guys. We liked our physics teacher too, and perhaps we thought we were doing him a favor when we asked him to join us once. His ethics blew us all a raspberry when he gave us a curt and laughable “No way!”
I have no idea if his feelings were hurt when he read a note over my shoulder once, written by the girl sitting next to me in class, which said “What do you think of Mr. C as a man?” I made a disgusted face, the kind that only a sixteen-year-old girl can muster up, only to hear him growl behind my back. “I will have no such conversation in class, ladies.” I dare say that Mr. C had a crush on me. There is no salacious story to tell, I just knew. I was allowed to make comments that others were not. I was publicly scolded, but called aside after class to receive a blundered apology. There was a protective instinct that he had about me.
Mr. C would always rank our grades when he handed our tests back to us. He would call us to the blackboard one by one, in order of excellence. He had a great way of making it not personal, so that you did not feel bad if you fucked up, but there was a sense of accomplishment if your name was one of the last ones to be called out. I was the only one to get an A in our first test, and I was also the last one to have my name called out for the last test in our senior year. “You ought to think about studying physics,” he said to me. I went for English and Comp Lit instead.
But more than the quiet pride I still feel over these, there was one test that still sticks in my mind. There was a task that required calculating the time it would take for a vertical projectile to return to the ground. All the variables were there, but for the life of me I could not remember the formula. So I divided the motion into two trajectories – the vertical throw and the free fall – and did the math based on the formulas that I could remember.
I got another A. When taking my test back from Mr. C, I wanted to explain myself.
“I’m sorry, I could not remember the formula so I improvised.”
“And your method was correct, as were your results. That is why you got an A. But you sure did take the long way round. You shouldn’t overcomplicate things.”
Fast forward fifteen years.
Dear Mr. C, I have not changed one bit.
I still take the long way round.
I still make things more complicated than they need to be.
I still give myself a hard time, but I try to improvise, and sometimes I get the right results. Your protective instincts saw right through me, even if I would not admit it then.
But I have learned empathy. I have learned to fail, and to make mistakes. I am still learning self-forgiveness and letting go, but I trust that that one is just round the bend as well. I am sorry we underestimated you, unthinking little jackasses that we were. I hope that you are still a man of integrity, and I hope your work is valued. I also hope, for your own sake, that you finally got a place of your own.