Friday, July 22, 2005

Important People

Yesterday my wife and I ran into two people who were important to us, growing up.

I really need to rephrase that, because it doesn't make it clear what I'm trying to say. These people knew both of us, but never dealt with us when we were "together." And yet we both remember them separately as wonderful people who were important to us getting where we are today.

One was Ed Shaughnessy, who was The Man at our high school. I use the title The Man because whatever his actual title was (Dean of Students? Principal?), his real job as far as I knew was to walk the hallways and act as the father figure to a bunch of blue collar kids with attitude problems. This was the guy who handed out punishments, who told you to "take your goddamn hat off" inside the classroom, and who broke up fights. And this was the guy who got a standing ovation during graduation ceremonies.

Mr. S, as we called him (because that's what his wife called him; see below), was a real rarity. He knew how to talk to kids, how to get results, and how to earn respect. And he'd known it for decades: he was teaching at the school when Jess's parents were students there.

Jess and I weren't problem kids; Mr. S. didn't need to give us a lot of shit. But he still had to keep us in line, and both of us dealt with him on a couple occasions. I specifically remember getting caught typing an obscene poem in typing class (I remember how it started: "A jolly old elf that old saint nick, had a two-foot seven-inch motherfucking dick") while Jess and her friends all showed up late for school one day with permission slips from their parents, and still got in trouble ("I don't care if they're real or not, you can't just skip your first class and get breakfast at Abdow's. You know what'll happen if word gets out this stunt worked? You tell all your classmates you have detention!" [they didn't, of course, but they had to say they did...]).

Anyway. As far as I know, he retired shortly after Jess graduated. A quick web search shows him back at Smith school, though, as athletic director and baseball coach. I'm sure he's still keeping kids in line. Way to go, Mr. S.

The other person we met was Jane Nagle, who taught us English Literature in our Junior and Senior years. Miss Nagle was married to Mr. S., but kept her own last name. She had a talent for recognizing and nurturing independent thought, and rewarded creative expression of ideas, even unpopular ones. I still remember specific classroom discussions from that class, and it was 15 years ago! I still have my journals, my papers, my homework assignments with comments scribbled in the margins. Both Jess and I spoke at our respective high school graduations, and Miss Nagle helped us with our speeches like a nervous hen. She begged us not to embarass Mr S., and of course we ignored her advice and made sure we gave our peers ample opportunity to applaud him.

Miss Nagle didn't earn the same kind of respect Mr S. did, though. Jess and I both remember her very fondly, but I know some other students didn't. She never connected with the "collective consciousness" of the student body with the same ease her husband did. And there may have been some resentment of the way she seemed to play favorites ... it was hard to see that at the time. Still, I feel the environment she created in that Period 1 English Lit class really helped shape me and prepare my mind for higher education.

Miss Nagle didn't stay at Smith School. She had been working on her doctorate for some time, and after Jess graduated she moved on to a new calling -- instead of teaching kids, she's teaching new generations of teachers. A quick web search shows her at Westfield State now.

Seeing them, still happy and together all these years later, was a powerful moment. Mr S. recognized us right away, pointing at us across a crowded room. We shook hands, hugged, made small talk for a couple moments, and went our separate ways. I wish we had talked for a little while longer, but so it goes.

I think they know how important they were to us. And now you do to.

No comments: