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.