When I was in college, I had a journalism teacher I will never forget.
He was a little old man (old enough to be my grandpa) who walked around campus with nothing but a jean jacket and a baseball cap, even in the middle of winter. Actually, he shuffled. He shuffled around campus and I often wondered how he made it anywhere on time.
So began the mistakes of first impressions.
I would soon find out that he had more spunk then I imagined.
Going in on the first day of class I was in the same boat as everyone else; we didn’t know what to expect. When I walked into the classroom there were only three other students (out of fifteen) sitting around two long tables and the teacher was sitting at the head of the class. He had his eyes closed and his head resting on the back of the chair.
I thought he was dead. Seriously. I thought my teacher was dead.
I’ll never be able to say why this was my first thought, because I don’t know. All I know is that he wasn’t moving and I was surprised by his age and the fact that he was still teaching, but I would soon realize that he could, and would, teach me more then I thought possible.
This was the hardest class I ever took in college, even harder then any math or science class (which were never my strong points). I wrote every essay and journalistic article assigned and always made sure I was handing in my best work. So when the first paper came back with a glaring red C staring at me, I felt disappointed. I worked even harder on the next paper; a B. He kept giving me Bs and I became increasingly frustrated. I often wondered, “What do I have to do to get an A?” The day I chose to talk to him about a paper, he told me I could do better.
Do better? Do better? How could I do better when I was already handing in my best work? I didn’t see it then, but I see now that he believed I was a better writer then the assignments I handed in were reflecting. So he was pushing me, challenging me, and I accepted that challenge. (And if you’re curious, yes, I did finally receive that A I was after).
He sat at the head of the table like a king on a thrown. He ran the classroom like a real newsroom, calling us by our last names with a “Mr.” or “Ms.” in front. He sent us out on, what most of us thought were, silly and ridiculous assignments. We would spend ten or fifteen minutes in a parking lot counting cars, looking at license plates and car colors as well as make and model. Then we would go back to the classroom and he would ask us questions about what we saw in the parking lot, or wherever it was he sent us that day. If we didn’t know the answer, he sent us back out. Sometimes he would give us almost impossible assignments or just tell us to read the newspaper.
Yes, he was old. He was soft spoken (until someone was rude or disrespectful and he kicked them out of the classroom). He was rough around the edges and, even though I continued getting my As, I spent most of my time wishing I could slap him. Disrespectful, I know, but if you knew this man then you may have felt the same way.
To be honest, I thought he was a complete asshole and wondered what I could really learn from him, but this would be yet another mistake of first impressions.
As time went on, I was able to get to know him better. He sent us on these so-called silly assignments because he was trying to teach us to pay attention to details. So they weren’t really silly at all. They were learning tools. Everything he made us do was a learning tool and he was anything but a conventional teacher. He made us read the newspaper so we were informed, but somehow assignments always came from what we read. He wouldn’t let us hand papers in late because he was teaching us about deadlines (you can’t hand in a article late to a news editor). He pushed us because he cared.
Once I figured him out, I realized I liked his style and he really was a great teacher, so I signed up for all his classes. Although, you can’t really figure a person out, not completely. They always have untold stories, but I was about to hear some of his.
Turns out this man was brilliant. He was a reporter and editor for newspapers all around the country. He had seen and done things that made me realize he was a reporter during a very different time. (Somehow he reminded me of those real gritty newspaper reporters you see in old black and white films. The ones you see with a press card sticking out of their hat, a cigarette hanging out of their mouth, always keeping cool under pressure.). Once he retired (or was pushed out of the business due to his age, so the story goes) he started teaching.
I’m thankful I realize this man was a wealth of knowledge and I could learn from him. Other students made fun of him because of his age, calling him a dinosaur behind his back. Sure, he was old enough to be our grandpa, but he knew what he was talking about. For years he lived what he was now trying to teach us and, to me, that was worth more then a PhD professor.
I didn’t talk to him again until my last semester. I would wave to him in passing and saw him shuffling around campus almost everyday. In the winter I would see him with his jean jacket and baseball cap and wonder, “How can you not be cold?” It made me smile because I would have on boots, gloves, a coat, a hat and a scarf (and sometimes still be cold). On the day I talked to him, I was making my way back from a class and saw him sitting in a classroom, alone. I stopped in the doorway. He looked up from his newspaper and we started talking. I told him I was super stressed because of this one class. He asked if I wanted to talk about it and I told him him it probably wouldn’t do much good.
We agreed to meet Tuesday morning for coffee, even though I don’t drink coffee. Neither of us had a commitment to a class until about eleven and, honestly, besides reading or writing, what else was I going to do?
I didn’t know this Tuesday coffee meeting was going to turn into a weekly event, but I’m glad it did because I enjoyed them tremendously. He had his coffee (black, no sugar or cream) and I had my tea or hot chocolate. We talked about the news, life, books (I suggested some he might want to read and he gave me books to keep), he told me stories from his past (about when he was growing up, how and why he chose journalism, about when he was a reporter and then an editor) and I told him stories too (about my goals and dreams). He encouraged me on my writing and the idea that I wanted to write a book one day (something I am still working on). Once he found out I was a photographer, he wanted to see some of my photos, and encouraged me with that too (even gave me a photo book). In so many ways it really was like talking to my grandpa.
Once I graduated and found my first job at a newspaper, he was constantly in my head every time I sat down to write an article or went out on assignment; ask the hard questions, the most important information goes in the front, what’s your angle?, keep it fresh, it’s ok to ask them to repeat themselves if you don’t understand, pay attention to detail, did you know obituaries are the only full story in a newspaper because they have a beginning, middle and end?, always ask ‘why,’ chase the story.
I wonder what he would think of me now; I worked at a few newspapers (don’t anymore), I’m working on a book, I’m working on being a concert photographer and I will live my dreams.
The sad part is, I’ll never have a chance to tell him. A year ago, in early January, I was reading the newspaper and saw a picture of him on the front page below the fold, followed by a rather lengthy article. I don’t know why, but I had a bad, scary feeling. As I started reading, my fears were confirmed. He had passed away.
Cancer’s a bitch. There’s no doubt about it. Cancer’s a bitch. I didn’t even know he was sick. It was like the cancer came and just ate him in one gulp. That’s how fast it was, and I heard he had no chance of surviving. Colon cancer. Yes, it’s a bitch. So the man I remember as spunky and feisty had to stop teaching and, instead, ended up in the hospital. I can only imagine how much he must have hated that, not being able to do anything when he was so use to always being on the move. I don’t know a lot of the details and, honestly, I don’t want too. I don’t know if he was in pain or how much he suffered. I would like to think that even in the end he was still feisty (because that would be just like him).
He was indeed a fireball, a firecracker, a feisty little old man who I wanted to slap but ended up teaching me so much. He taught me more then just the ins and outs of journalism. He taught me about life. He pushed me because, I believe now, he saw an untapped talent and wanted me to reach my full potential. My only regret is that he won’t be here to see it, to watch when I finally make my mark in this world. He won’t be here to see me publish a book or go on tour with nothing but a backpack and my camera or any other dream that I am currently chasing, but I’ve always been ambitious and determined so maybe he already knew I would accomplish all these things.
I’m not ashamed to say that he was one of the greatest teachers and friends I had the privilege of knowing. I think we all have those teachers who become our friends after we are no longer their students, the ones who have always pushed us to be greater then we think we are because they believe in us more then we believe in ourselves.