It was a remarkable day in late September. Every day is remarkable in its own way, but I was touched by something unexpected during my last class of the day. Because it was Friday afternoon and the end of the school day with my most difficult class (the leather-jacket, juvenile delinquent crowd), I was feeling sorry for myself, thinking as I watched them taking their Friday vocabulary test that I was not really reaching them as I had hoped to do. I saw my reflection in a big mirror that I used to keep tabs on everything that went on in the room even when my back was turned. My face looked sad. Though the rest of the day had been very successful and most enjoyable in my other classes, I was focusing once again on what I felt was a failure on my part to inspire everyone in the room and have them excited about what we were going to be doing after the test.
Then there was a knock on the door, and a messenger from the main office delivered a package to me that had just arrived. My students were distracted by the interruption (always an arduous task to get them back on track after ANY distraction, even a sneeze). One bold kid in the front row (the one who was proud that his brother was in prison for armed robbery) asked who it was from and what it was. I read the return address and said that the package was from a former Morton student, Jim Davis, from many years ago (thirty-four to be exact). One kid joked that it might be a bomb, but I replied that I was going to open it anyway and that we would all go up together…like bottle rockets.
Their curiosity was aroused by now, and excuses for distraction aside, they were genuinely interested to know the contents. I opened the box to find a five-page letter from that former student, who was a trucker for twenty-five years before opening his own mortuary in California. He had been in a “problem” class just like the one I was teaching that hour…a “basic skills” English class. We corresponded over all those intervening years, and he continued to send me news about his life, including, at last, pictures of his grandchildren.
He worked for several months after 9/11 at Ground Zero clearing debris and corpses. He worked with the New York City Fire Department and Police Department as head coroner. In the box was the cap he wore during his work there. It was covered with dirt and badges for his valor. It was the thing of which he was most proud. The letter said that I had always been his favorite teacher and that he still thought of the ways I had inspired him to be his best even though he was now fifty-one years old. He wanted me to have the cap, because he was proud of it, and I was his hero in a time when the world was calling him a hero.
My eyes filled up as I looked at it and explained to the class what it was. They were absolutely silent (perhaps the first time they had ever seen a teacher cry). The bell rang and they left quietly (as they had never done before). Maybe they too were touched by what had occurred. I don’t know. It may be that they were simply shocked by my reaction. It didn’t matter. I had not been so moved in a long time by a gesture like that gift. It came at just the right time to let me know that teaching had indeed made a difference and that there were influences that continued long after students were gone. I felt quite blessed.
Jim had heart surgery two weeks after he sent me the cap and died October 23, 2003. I’ll include the final letter I sent to him before his death. I retired the following spring.
September 19, 2003
Your package arrived today during my most difficult class (the leather- jacketed delinquent set). They all have learning disabilities and I often feel that I am not reaching them and that my work is of no use. Just keeping order in the class is a constant and draining job. So much for my whining.
One student in the front row asked what the package was and how had sent it. When I answered that it had come from a former student, someone said, “Look out! It might be a bomb.” I replied that I was going to open it anyway and that we would all go up together like bottle rockets. I read only part of your letter before my eyes filled up. When I came to the cap, I lost my composure and sobbed. The students were absolutely silent. They saw how very moved I was and I believe they understood what I was feeling. I don’t think I have ever been so proud or touched by any other gift in my whole life as I was that cap and that letter. It suddenly made my whole career make sense. It helped me to know that what I do is not in vain and that positive influences continue even after my students have moved on to other things and other places.
I can’t tell you, Jim, how much it meant to me to receive what you sent. I shared it with some people in the main office downstairs before I left school today, and they cried too. What a beautiful gesture you made!
Please know that you will be in my thoughts and prayers. I will want to know how the surgery went and that everything is going well for you again. You are an extraordinary man of great courage and gallantry. In spiritual terms there is nothing wrong with your heart. It is the best and biggest one I know.
Of all the students I have taught over the past thirty-five years, you will remain one of the ones for whom I keep the fondest regard. That cap will be on my bookshelf always to remind me of the valor and compassion you have shown your fellow-beings. You have taught me at least as much as I have taught you.
Wherever I am, I still think often of Morton High School, a building I entered for the first time in my early twenties, a place that for me will always echo the voices of thousands of students, who have passed through its halls, the sounds of chalk on blackboards, the turning of millions of pages in books, the bounce of basketballs on the gym floor, the roar of crowds cheering at touchdowns on the football field, the crack of the ball and bat, the music of choirs, orchestras, and bands slightly out of tune, a place where so many young people became men and women.
Clusters of powerful recollections flooded my mind that afternoon of June 9, 2004 as I finished putting final grades on scan sheets. For lunch my friend Logan Clark had taken me to a favorite Chinese restaurant, where we also polished off a large pitcher of Mai Tai before going back to school, where I said my goodbyes to custodians, office staff, and some teachers, who were still grading papers and putting final grades on the scan sheets. Then I gathered up my electric box fan, and old Zenith mahogany radio from 1955.
At the door to my classroom, I turned to look once more at where I had taught for so many years, a room uncharacteristically silent that afternoon, as I turned out the lights and closed the door for the last time. I went down the same stairway I had climbed and descended so many thousands of times. The parking lot was almost empty, as I loaded my car trunk. Driving from the lot, I saw the school building grow smaller in my rear-view mirror, a shrinking image that became almost a mirage as I sped off into the warmth of approaching summer. It was over. JB