A gentle man takes a last lap

Daniel McQuaidCoaching Blogs, Illinois HS Cross Country, Illinois HS Track & Field, Opinion 18 Comments

When I hear the word “irreplaceable” I think of the deluxe-sized futon I slept on during my late  bachelor phase, which, a few years into our marriage my wife surreptitiously dragged to the curb one dark and foggy night when I unwisely allowed my vigilance to lapse.

I also think of my friend and colleague Jeff Potter, a long time English teacher and distance coach at Wheaton North High School who will retire at the end of this school year.

In the strict sense of the word, Jeff will be replaced. A teacher will be hired to take over his classes, and a coach will step forward to train and manage his merry band of distance nerds.

But the truth is that Jeff cannot be replaced. At the risk of sounding old and misanthropic, I just don’t see the world producing folks like him anymore.

You see, Jeff is a creature from a previous age, a lost era when humans delighted in speaking with other humans.

Each day Jeff spends each passing period standing outside his classroom near the elbow where the 300 and 400 halls intersect at Wheaton North, greeting students, inquiring about their day, about the Beatles shirt they are wearing, about their older sister who was in his creative writing class six years ago, about the badminton tournament they competed in the night before.

He owns a massive collection of neckties, each one with a story behind it which he will gladly share before the conversation inevitably meanders back to the topic of you and your well being. “How did that physics test go yesterday?” “How was that field trip to see West Side Story?” “You made the basketball team? I was hoping they’d cut you so you could come run for me!”

All this punctuated with a happy pirate laugh and an encouraging pat on the shoulder.

Sounds corny, doesn’t it? Like a character from the old black and white Andy Griffith Show, Floyd the barber maybe, transported into the hallways of a modern high school populated with modern, cell phone addicted, Netflix-binging teenagers.

And it would be easy to imagine the kids going out of their way to avoid that 300/400 elbow where the goofy guy older than their parents insists on talking to them every…freaking…day.  Doesn’t he realize he’s cutting into people’s vape time? And excuse me, but I’m…like…trying to Snapchat!

But, the kids do not avoid him. They flock to him.

We teachers hate when folks try to quantify good teaching with “data,” maybe because “data” is  often invoked by those critical of our public education system as in “data shows that two-year-olds in Finland are reading at a twelfth grade level.”

But here’s a bit of  data that helps illustrate the way our students feel about Jeff.

Next Saturday, Jeff is going to have to leave the State Track Meet early to make it back for the Wheaton North graduation ceremonies held at the College of Dupage. He has no choice, because the class of 2019 elected him to deliver their commencement address.

When he steps up to the podium, he will look out at 500 seniors, approximately 400 of whom chose during their time at Wheaton North to take his creative writing and/or poetry classes.

I know what you’re thinking.

“Wow, kids in Wheaton really love poetry and creative writing!”

And for sure some do.

But that’s not why all those kids signed up for Jeff’s classes. They signed up because they wanted to spend forty-five minutes a day with a man too kind to judge his students’ worth based on their SAT score or how many AP classes they are taking or what college they’ll attend, too courteous to let on that he might be less than thrilled to read someone’s fourteen-page short story about a cat, too benevolent to lose his patience when still another student asks for an extension on an assignment that was due six weeks ago.

It is not easy being a teenager today.  Folks my age love to disparage young people for their “sense of entitlement.” And yes, my college sophomore daughter refuses to drink tea brewed at home, and why should she when there is a Starbucks but a short Uber ride away?

But in many ways, my generation had a much easier time growing up.

One, college was affordable. My parents (a stay-at-home mom and a dad who earned a middle class salary) were able to put four of us through college without having to take on any debt.

Two, there was no such thing as AP classes. I took some challenging courses in high school, including several social studies electives that required ten-page research papers and lots of heavy reading, but those classes were–ironically–taught more like college classes and less like desperate, eighteen-week cram sessions.

Three, there was no internet. Need I say more?

The bottom line is that for many kids today, the pressures of adolescence can be crushing and they need someone like Jeff in their lives to help get them through it.

My second favorite character in all of literature is Jim Casy from The Grapes of Wrath. Casy is a former preacher who casts in his lot with a family of Dust Bowl refugees. He listens to their stories, shares their hardships, their meals, their heartbreak. And in doing so, he brings them comfort.

For the past twenty years, Jeff has been our Jim Casy.

Will another person like him come along now to take his place dispensing kindness where the 300 and 400 hallways intersect at Wheaton North High School? Someone who, like Jim Casy, loves people so much they feel “fit to bust, sometimes”?

We have to hope.

Comments 18

  1. great article as always Dan! Jeff is a class act and will definitely be missed. As always you do a great job of capturing the essence of the man.

    1. Great tribute to a class act. This was one of the best pieces I have read in a while. Thank you for taking the time to remind us all what is most important through a great tribute.

  2. Having had Jeff as a teaching colleague and friend in Colorado is one of my fondest memories! He is a treasure and a blessing to people he knows. This piece of writing captures the joy and generous spirit of JP.

  3. Wow Dan that was awesome Such a beautiful tribute to our colleague.
    Jeff , his smile and positive attitude will be missed. New Journeys for a great person and teacher.

  4. I had Mr. Potter as a professor 3 years ago. After taking that class the first thing I told my brother was “You are taking that class, I don’t care if you don’t like poetry.” He was the teacher I looked forward to seeing, and even though I never said a word in that class he didn’t push me to speak up or change who I was. Love that man, can’t wait to see him speak at my brothers graduation!

  5. Yes, Mr. Potter is irreplaceable! As a parent of 3 of his students, and not a short time ago, he stands out as an amazing teacher and person!
    Best of everything as you retire, and I know you will continue to give of your encouraging heart to others.

  6. Great article! He was definitely one of my favorite teachers. He helped my prom date ask me to the dance by posting in the wanted ads of the newspaper we would read in his class. Great memories and a wonderful teacher!

  7. I’ll miss Jeff’s smiling face in the main office, he always took a moment to see how we are and wish us a great day. Wheaton North won’t be the same without Jeff.

    Jeff, I wish you the best of luck in your retirement. Enjoy.

  8. How perfect! Jeff is a wonderful person & has made WNHS a better place. I can only hope that when I retire in 2 years that someone can say an ounce of what you said about Jeff Dan you captured him Jeff you will be missed & best wishes on the new chapter of your life.

  9. The article about Jeff was forwarded to me. I have to comment because your writing moved me to tears. He is a wonderful person and talented educator. If you have/had ever met his parents you would know it’s all in the genes.

  10. Mr. Potter would always bring a smile to my face no matter how my day was going. Wheaton North will miss him greatly!

  11. Great article! I loved having Mr. Potter as a teacher over 6 years ago. It’s not often that you meet someone like him.

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