Peasant: She turned me into a newt!
Sir Bevedere: [suspiciously] A newt?
Peasant: [long pause]…I got better.
—Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
A couple of days ago, a friend of mine from high school posted to his Facebook account that one of the teachers who was around back then had died. Not only that, it was his understanding that this teacher had died a couple of years ago and he’d just learned about it. A few of us said some nice things and clucked with the retrospective sadness, much like some folks did when I posted that Garrison Keillor joke. Later on, he came back and noted that he’d been mistaken and that the teacher was still alive. In fact, said teacher even took the time to say “Hi” to everyone in the same thread.
I, like the others who were caught by the error, said a couple of kind things about him in that thread. In my case it was specifically that I’d learned a lot from him and that I still remembered most of his remarkably bad jokes. I also noted that I was disappointed that I couldn’t attend his surprise retirement party several years ago. As it turns out, he retired from teaching in Kings Park (New York), not from teaching altogether, and this may be his last year. After all, he’s been in the business for 44 years now. I wrote a piece that was intended to be shared with him at the party. I don’t have that piece anymore, but I hope he got to read it. I presume he did; I’d emailed it to his wife (whose name, oddly, is NOT “Raquel”).
At the time of his retirement, I was working for the Leader Newspaper Group in northern New Jersey. In addition to being a reporter for the group, I wrote an occasional column to fill up space on the Op/Ed page. I took the occasion to write a tribute to him around that time, and they published it in the July 6, 2000 edition (PDF document). My column is on Page 5, and I’m only linking because it turns out that I was the guy who wrote that week’s editorial as well. So, if you click the link you’ll see part of my journalistic career. Remember that this column was pre-Facebook and pre-My Space, so Classmates.com was about the only way you had to get in touch with anyone from your past, and it wasn’t a free service.
Here was my column:
Sad news this week: I'm getting old.
Okay, perhaps you don't care about that. So are you, but I have a column to whine about it and you don't. The point is, it doesn't occur to me that often.
There's a big computer company (whose initials may stand for I'll Buy Macintosh) that's been using actor Avery Brooks in its television ads. Apparently Captain Sisko has gotten off of Deep Space Nine and has returned to Earth to hawk "serious software." In one of the commercials he explains to the viewers, whose vocabulary development has been repressed by watching too much TV, what an "epiphany" is.
Well, I've had an epiphany or two myself in recent times. Most of them are connected to the fact that I'm no spring chicken anymore. I'm not talking about the usual aches and pains that come with getting older; I can deal with those. It's when you suddenly realize that the song you're listening to, you heard for the first time when Gerald Ford was in office and it dawns on you how long ago that was. In my case, it was a note from someone I'd never met before.
I spend some time every week on a website called Classmates.com. You go to the site, put in some information about where you went to high school, and you can communicate with a whole bunch of folks you didn't want to associate with back then. The site has a bulletin board system wherein you can send notes to everyone from your home town.
A short while back, I saw a note that said that Mr. Weidig, my Algebra teacher, is retiring after this school year, and that a surprise party was being arranged for him. What! Mr. Weidig is old enough to retire now? Why, he was such a young fellow when he taught me back in…back in…
[The reader will please note that this is the part where I cut out a bunch of words that one doesn't ordinarily see in a family newspaper. But the gist of it was: "Golly, it's tough to believe that I was in ninth grade that long ago.”]
Mr. Weidig was one of the reasons I became a teacher. He was one of the few I knew who actually seemed to really enjoy the job. So many others seemed to be going through the motions. Mr. Weidig had a gentle way of prodding you along without pushing the issue. He had ways of making you pay attention without your knowing that that's what he was doing. And his jokes were soooo corny that you just had to repeat them later on. I still know most of those shaggy-dog stories. And yes, I have told some of them to my students in the past. I'll probably burn in Hell for that, thanks a lot.
So the retirement party has come and gone: Mr. Weidig is no longer teaching Math in Kings Park, NY, and it's up to somebody else to take his place. That's not as easy as it sounds. Mr. Weidig was part teacher and part clown. In either role, the shoes to be filled are very large.
In addition to the corny jokes, Mr. Weidig also had a habit of “asking himself questions” as a means of moving a discussion forward, or perhaps letting everyone know that this is something we should be wondering about. He’d walk to the back of the room and sit in a vacant chair, then raise his hand to get attention. Then he’d walk up to the front of the room and call on himself. Then he’d walk patiently back to the seat and ask a question. Then he’d walk to the front again and, before answering, say (and here’s where the entire class would chorus in): “I’m glad you asked.” I’ve pulled that stunt a couple of times, too.
Frankly, I don’t remember what I wrote in the piece that I sent to Mr. Weidig’s wife, other than to suggest facetiously that he tell a story called “The Parade Joke” one more time. And no, I won’t tell it to you here. Maybe I’ll relate the Parade Joke as the last post ever to this blog…