16 February 2009

Afterimage

Ah, high school.

The horror.

I'm about the only person I know who actually liked high school most days. Oh, sure, plenty of angst. Plenty of horror. But there's a great deal I remember with fondness, even affection.

I first met Mr. H., the high school journalism teacher and newspaper adviser, my freshman year. Through the weirdness that guides my life, I ended up in study hall (also in auto mechanics, which sent the guidance counselors straight through roof. Honors students weren't supposed to take shop classes) and he was the lucky soul who got to monitor that hour of study hall. Study hall. Like the good student I always was, I actually sat quietly and did my homework. I will never forget the boy, a sophomore, skinny with long, lanky hair and a somewhat random moustache, who would sit with an acoustic guitar and play the opening bars of "Stairway to Heaven." Over and over...and over, until even Mr. H. suggested that he please learn something else. But he's another story.

Mr. H. was a small man, neatly turned out in short-sleeved dress shirt and slacks nearly every day. He wore glasses and had the oddest hair, the best exemplar of mouse brown but it sort of stuck straight out, like a flattened brush. He pitched his voice low and never raised it, maintaining control during study hall with a quiet authority that even the hardest cases didn't seem inclined to challenge. It was actually a very calm part of my day, and I got a lot done.

I never really had cause to talk much to Mr. H. during the course of study hall, but near the end of that year, he called me over and said, "You really should take my journalism class."

I smiled and told him I'd consider it.

I was one of those students who took full advantage of public education. To the point where, when I graduated, I had nearly another year's worth of credits. I took unexciting required classes in summer school, and then crammed my regular schedule full of honors and elective classes, so not only did I get auto mechanics, but also electronics, wood working and printing (yes, I learned how to set type. Just one of the many random skills I've acquired in my life), but dance, advanced foreign language, and finally, journalism.

Sophomore and junior years, I would run into Mr. H. periodically, and he would remind me that I really should take journalism! I was never sure why, exactly, I should take journalism, other than Mr. H.'s earnest and friendly assertion that I should do so, but in retrospect, journalism was part of the English Department, and teachers talk, and I was in all the honors writing classes, ergo...journalism. Finally, my senior year, I had an available slot in my schedule, a well-established love of writing, as well as a boyfriend who was the news editor for the school paper. Ergo, journalism.

Journalism was first period. Most years, I'd had a dance class first thing in the morning, and that was one heck of a way to wake up, so journalism seemed almost easy in comparison with flinging myself around in flying leaps at that hour of the morning. There I sat, front of the class, pencil primly poised, ready to go.

(For what it is worth, Mr. H. took the photo of me that appears here, the ghost of emulsion past. I was working on an assignment and I don't remember why he was fiddling with the Polaroid, but I do remember that I was a bit annoyed at being caught unawares--and chewing on my thumb. He just laughed at my teenage female exasperation.)

Mr. H. was one of those rarest of people, a natural teacher. He didn't just lecture, he told stories to illustrate his lessons, and his manner was so engaging, so filled with enthusiasm, that his class quickly became one of my favorites. Already in his 50s then, he had a lifetime of experience to share with us. With his quick wit and dry humor, he'd have all the students snickering when he read particularly badly written news aloud, but we worked and we learned alot. Everything I know about how news is produced I learned from him, and it helped immeasurably when I worked on a news program for the local PBS TV affiliate the summer following high school graduation, and in the years beyond when my job was to edit and publish a news digest weekly for Big Entertainment Company.

Not only did he make his class fun, Mr. H. was an almost unfailingly cheerful person and endlessly kind. Certainly, I saw him angry and frustrated when budget cutbacks threatened the journalism program. Certainly, I saw him get annoyed when students were out of line, but his response was always measured. While he commanded respect, he in turn treated us with friendly regard. He holds the distinction of being the only male to ever get away with calling me by the diminutive of my given name.

I spent a lot of time in the journalism room that final year of high school. It was a pleasant place, people were always hard at work, but there was often laughter, especially as the time came to put the paper to bed each week. I'd wander in after I'd finished with dance class, and help with layout or in tossing off a headline. It turned out that I really had a gift for egregious headlines, and egged on by various staff members as well as Mr. H., I'd come up with dreadful puns and alliteration that live on not only in old copies of the newspaper, but in our senior yearbook.

Mr. H. taught us how to write all manner of news: regular news, entertainment news, even obituaries, so I suppose it's appropriate that I learned of his death from the newspaper yesterday. My heart fell when I saw his picture, but the notice was not unexpected: he would have been 80 this year, and had long been in ill health. It is a measure of the person he was that the lengthy story told me little that I didn't already know: that he'd been a radio personality, that he loved to travel, that he was so highly regarded in his chosen field, all of the aspects of his life that he'd integrated into our lessons and our discussions.

My children have been fortunate already in their young lives to have teachers who have inspired them and guided them, treated them with respect and kindness, taught them wondrous and interesting things, the teachers whose memory one treasures always. I've been blessed in my life to have known several such good people whose words and teachings have left a positive mark upon me, whose lessons I continue to ponder 20 or more years later, whose example still resonates in my life. Even as I write this, I see how Mr. H.'s influence has shaped the way in which I frame the story of how I briefly knew him.

Go listen to some good music: "Afterimage" from the album Grace Under Pressure by Rush.

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